Brenn Conrad wants to leave own mark on Cajuns baseball _lowres

Advocate Photo by BRAD KEMP Louisiana-Lafayette infielder Brenn Conrad runs the bases during drills at Tigue Moore Field in Lafayette, La., Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015.

Brenn Conrad knows too well that, until he makes some major contributions to Louisiana-Lafayette’s baseball squad this year, he’s going to be Jace’s little brother.

All the elder Conrad did last year was earn All-America status and Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year honors, in helping lead the Ragin’ Cajuns’ to a 58-win season, the nation’s No. 1 ranking for the latter third of the season and to the NCAA Super Regionals.

“I’ve been getting that my whole life,” Brenn said of his little-brother status. “It’s nothing new. Hey, I’m just trying to battle for a position and help my team win, do whatever I can to contribute.”

UL-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux, for one, doesn’t think it’ll take long for teammates and Cajun followers alike to give the younger sibling his due.

“He’s similar to his brother, he’s a gamer,” Robichaux said as his Ragin’ Cajun squad moves into the final two weeks of preseason drills. “He’s had a great fall and early spring. He’s sound defensively and he knows where the barrel of his bat is. He’ll hit with power before his time’s over.”

It’s hard not to make comparisons between the brothers. Both are left-handed hitting infielders who have hit for average on every level (Jace Conrad hit .364 with a team-leading 65 RBIs during last year’s historic season). Both were multi-year standouts at Lafayette High, and both were on the 2005 Lafayette Little League team that reached the U.S. semifinals at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

The biggest difference is that Jace was a fixture at second base last season, and wound up as a 13th-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays after his junior year. Because of his performance and his life-of-its-own beard, Jace became in many ways the “face” of the Cajun squad.

Brenn’s face was nowhere to be seen.

The younger Conrad had gone to the prominent Iowa Western Community College program the previous fall after filling a reserve role for the Cajuns in 2013. He played only sparingly in that freshman season, hitting .188 in 18 games, and also struggled with the death of close friend and prep teammate Christian Nelson in a work accident.

At the end of that 2013 juco fall season, Brenn came home and didn’t return to Council Bluffs, Iowa, after the holidays.

“It’s a totally different kind of baseball at the juco level,” he said. “They didn’t let me be myself. They tried to change my swing ... I’ve always had a leg kick since I can remember and they tried to spread me out. I just didn’t really like it. It started making me not like baseball, as much as I’ve always liked it.”

While Iowa Western was winning the junior college national championship and the Cajuns were making program history, Brenn was away from baseball during a spring season for the first time since early elementary school.

“It made me realize how much I really do love the game,” Conrad said of his year in absence. “It wasn’t because last year’s team went 58-10 and made the Super Regional. It wasn’t that. It was that first weekend I saw them play, once the lights came on for 6 o’clock at the Tigue ... it made me realize what I was missing out on.”

Robichaux feared the transition back to the Cajun locker room might not be perfectly smooth, even though he and his staff were very high on the youngest of the Conrad clan after he hit .359 with 28 RBIs as a senior all-stater at Lafayette High.

“It was a tough time for him,” Robichaux said. “He felt he really needed to step away for a while. Going away put a different set of lenses on him. He needed to mature, and he’s been very mature in handling everything.

“Some guys like that, that go away, you never see them again. I’m very proud of the way he’s come back. His brother got so much notoriety, and that can be tough for a younger brother to handle.”

Robichaux said that Conrad could see action at second base — where Jace was a fixture for three years — third base or in the outfield.

“You’ll see him move around a little,” Robichaux said, “but we need that left-handed bat in our lineup.”

For his part, Conrad can’t wait for the Feb. 13 season opener at Texas-San Antonio, after missing out on the experiences of last season.

“You have no idea how ready I am,” he said. “I’ve been ready to go since the end of the fall. When we stopped intrasquad last fall, I wanted to keep on going. This team’s going to surprise a lot of people ... everybody’s thinking we lost all those veterans, all those guys that played last year and the year before, but I think we’re really going to be good offensively. Pitching, we’re going to be young, but I think we’re going to be very good.”