For a baseball team that already had to replace its top five hitters, the loss of the Sun Belt Conference’s top pitcher to injury could have been a devastating blow.
That same experience-starved team also faces one of the nation’s toughest early schedules, with three games at Texas to open the season, three games with Sun Belt preseason favorite South Alabama and meetings with Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, LSU and Tulane all coming in the first month of the season.
But UL-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux isn’t one to back down from a challenge, and he’s hoping his young Ragin’ Cajuns don’t, either.
“Our younger players are getting better, and we really need those guys to be better because we’re fixing to get tested,” said Robichaux, whose team opens its season Friday against the Longhorns. “We surely have the strength of schedule for those guys to get better, and get them used to the level we want to play at.”
Robichaux is used to such challenges, entering his 32nd year as a collegiate head coach. But rarely has his Cajuns team started a season with two true freshmen on the left side of the infield, new faces scattered through the rest of the lineup and with major questions in the bullpen.
And it doesn’t help that UL-Lafayette will seek improvement on last year’s 35-21-1 record without the services of senior left-hander Gunner Leger, who went 10-2 with a 1.97 ERA last season. Leger will redshirt this year after surgeries on his throwing elbow and his right leg — the latter more serious than many thought.
“What we have to do is spread that out among our pitching staff,” Robichaux said. “We don’t want one guy to believe he’s got to become Gunner, and he’s got to win 10 games. ... We have to build some middle relief, and our starters are going to have to pound the strike zone to stay out of the bullpen. That’s the thing that Gunner did for us on Friday night.”
Prior to last season, the Cajuns had been in NCAA regional play four straight seasons and made the super regional round twice in that stretch, compiling a 186-74 record and averaging nearly 47 wins per season. That recent success, coupled with last spring’s “soft” opening of the new Russo Park facility, made last year’s struggles harder to take.
Fortunately for Robichaux, who has always served as his own pitching coach, his starting rotation is solid — even without Leger’s presence. Junior left-hander Hogan Harris (5-2, 2.66) and junior right-hander Nick Lee (6-4, 5.12) each started 12 games and logged more than 60 innings last year. Senior lefty Colton Schmidt (2-1, 3.60) is fully recovered from injuries, and sophomore right-hander Jack Burk (2-4, 2.45) cut his teeth on midweek starts as a freshman.
The Cajuns should be solid in closer roles with Dylan Moore, the Sun Belt’s all-time saves leader (38), also back healthy and joined by sophomore Caleb Armstrong, who has dropped to a sidearm delivery.
It’s in between those groups that Robichaux has concerns and will go with untested players, with freshman left-handers Brock Batty and Austin Perrin set to get the first looks.
Cajuns opponents only hit .220 against last year’s staff, but a big goal for this year’s team is to better last year’s team .266 batting average. If that happens, it’ll come from a lineup that will open up in flux, and two first-time freshmen — shortstop Hayden Cantrelle and third baseman Jonathan Windham — may be the closest on the squad to having defensive spots locked down.
Cantrelle, the son of former UL-Lafayette standout Kevin Cantrelle, has impressed Robichaux since the start of fall practice.
“When we had Blake Trahan here and he started there (at shortstop) as a freshman, he played above his chronological age,” Robichaux said. “That’s what Cantrelle has done. If you can get enough freshmen to what I call play old, that’s what we need.”
Junior Hunter Kasuls (.229) is penciled in at second base, and returning catcher Handsome Monica (.215) and junior college transfer Kole McKinnon figure to share time behind the plate.
The rest of the positions, including the entire outfield, could change from day to day, especially with the versatility of senior Kennon Fontenot (.270) who will see both infield and outfield action.
“Having him move around like that is so important right now,” Robichaux said. “He can shore up wherever we need. When we can move an experienced guy around if somebody goes cold, that’s his value.”
Todd Lott (.266) will get the first look in left field in an attempt to get a power bat in the lineup, while Tyler Stover will also move between the infield and in a deep outfield that includes Zach LaFleur (.292), Tremaine Spears and Logan Stoekle and highly regarded junior college transfers Daniel Lahare and Gavin Bourgeois.
The Cajuns could also get a boost depending on former St. Thomas More standout Brennan Breaux, who played two seasons at LSU before transferring and is in the middle of eligibility appeals.
“I think we’ll play good defense,” Robichaux said. “We have to shore up our freshmen and shore up our bullpen and get some guys experience there. We have guys that can help us, they’re just young. Those are the things we’ll have to play through.”