LAFAYETTE — College softball is in the midst of an offensive revolution, and Louisiana-Lafayette is right there leading the charge.
Entering Friday’s regional round opener, the Cajuns have already socked a school record 106 home runs, an average of 2.21 per game.
Their lineup boasts six sluggers who have clubbed their way to double-digit home run totals, led by the mighty Lexie Elkins, whose 29 homers lead the nation.
They’re at the leading edge of a wave that’s been years in the making.
Historically, star pitchers dominated the ranks of the college softball elite. All that seemingly mattered was the player in the middle of the diamond.
Need proof? Back in 2001, Arizona and UCLA pitchers mowed down opposing lineups on their way to the national championship game by allowing a total of six runs in six combined games. Fittingly, Arizona scored the only run against UCLA in that tournament and won the Women’s College World Series in a 1-0 shutout.
That isn’t likely to happen this year.
“Our sport is definitely evolving,” Cajuns coach Mike Lotief said. “The way the game was won way back when was pitching and defense and the short game. You spent more time bunting and slapping. But now, these kids, their skill level has gotten way better.”
Consider this: In that 2001 season, the average college softball team had a 2.44 ERA, hit for a .252 batting average, scored 3.4 runs per game and hit 0.32 home runs per game.
Flash forward to the present day. The average club has a 4.17 ERA, has a .287 batting average, is scoring 4.1 runs per game and is hitting 0.76 home runs per game.
For the mathematically challenged, that’s a 71-percent increase in ERA, a 35-point jump in batting average, a 42-percent increase in runs scored per game and a whopping 138-percent increase in home runs per game.
The increases in offensive production have been almost uniform since the 2000 season. If the season ended today, the batting average, runs per game and home runs per game totals would be the highest in the history of the sport — breaking records that were established across the board last season.
And here stand the Cajuns, championing all the good aspects of that trend (8.35 runs per game, .355 team batting average, 2.21 home runs per game) while at the same time harkening back to the good old days of dominant pitching (they have a 2.17 staff ERA).
“We’ve been there a long time,” Lotief said. “Our philosophy in this program has always been to be aggressive offensively with power. That’s what we’ve always tried to do here.”
Part of it lies in factors outside of Lotief’s control.
“If I’m 12 years old and I’m watching TV 10 years ago, it was all about the pitcher,” Lotief said. “Now you turn on TV, and there’ll be more time spent on hitters and position players than in the circle.”
The key has been nurturing that interest and then honing it into a weapon, with careful application of science and training.
Elkins didn’t hit a single home run in her freshman season at Texas Tech, despite starting 42 games. In her 107 games as a Cajun, she’s hit 53 of them.
“I’m catching up on all the ones I didn’t hit,” Elkins said.
Elkins said the team goes through endless drills focused on developing a powerful swing, and it’s hardly just the physical aspect of it. They watch film, breaking down pitchers and power hitters alike looking for the keys to hitting the ball hard.
Lotief is a self-described “nerd” when it comes to hitting. He won’t go into the specifics of his grand science experiment, but will say his team has the tools to find and train a biomechanically sound power hitter.
“That’s what we work on. We pride ourselves on our offense, it’s very important to us,” Elkins said. “Coach Mike will sit here for as long as we need, hours and hours every day. Anything we don’t have right we can fix, and he knows how to fix us.”
This may sound counterintuitive because of the success the Cajuns have had lately, but Elkins said the team is pulling back the reins on its home run swing in regional play.
The goal, Elkins said, is to hit better pitches on a line rather than being susceptible to pop-ups. A team can live and die on the long ball.
But with the talented offenses of Baylor (.319 batting average, 5.0 runs per game), Mississippi State (.318, 5.9) and Weber State (.323, 6.2) coming to town, the Cajuns know they might have to score in bunches to advance.
“Coach Mike always says, ‘It’s that one little inch that makes the difference between an All-American and just another player,’” said Shellie Landry, who hit 19 home runs this season. “Within the next two or three weeks, those are the things we’re going to search to get better at; the little inches that make the difference between the good teams.”
Sometimes those inches are the difference between a loud out and a run scored, and nobody knows that better than the Cajuns.