LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette’s softball team lived by the home run in its opening game of the Sun Belt Conference Championships.
Friday, the Ragin’ Cajuns nearly died in the same manner, only to find new life with the long ball and advance to Saturday’s tournament championship game.
The 12th-ranked Cajuns were victimized by two late homers by South Alabama in a 4-2 winners’ bracket final loss that sent them into a late-night elimination game. In that late game, UL-Monroe’s Miyuki Navarette had a three-run homer that capped a five-run second inning, one that gave the upset-minded Warhawks an early 5-2 advantage.
But for the third time in three weeks, Samantha Walsh bailed out the Sun Belt regular-season champions with a game-turning home run as UL-Lafayette topped ULM 14-6 in Friday’s late game.
The roller-coaster day sent the top-seeded Cajuns (43-8-1) into Saturday’s 3 p.m. title game against the Jaguars in one winner-take-all game, as USA goes for its third straight tournament title. Despite the Cajuns advancing to NCAA Super Regional play in each of the past two seasons, UL-Lafayette will be going for its first tournament title since 2011.
“That first game spent us emotionally,” UL-Lafayette coach Michael Lotief said. “Then you have to turn around in 30 minutes and muster it up and find a way to get it done. In a tournament, you’re going to wind up with your back against the wall eventually.”
The Cajuns and the sixth-seeded Warhawks (25-27) were tied 5-5 in the sixth inning of the elimination game before Walsh lined a two-out, 2-2 pitch over Lamson Park’s left-field wall for a grand slam that capped a rally from an early 5-2 deficit.
It was the second slam in as many nights for UL-Lafayette, after Shellie Landry’s seventh-inning, two-out, two-strike homer had given the Cajuns a stirring 5-3 win over Western Kentucky in the hosts’ Thursday tournament opener. Walsh had the game-winning homer in an 8-6 win over ULM last Saturday in the final regular-season Sun Belt series, and also had a last-inning game winner in a late April victory over McNeese State.
“We talk about trusting the process and that the game will eventually reward you,” Walsh said. “We weren’t going to carry that first game over to the next game.”
Walsh’s 10th homer of the year, which made her the fourth Cajun to reach that mark this season, came two innings after Lexie Elkins’ two-run shot off ULM loser Melanie Coyne (4-4) tied the game 5-5.
The Warhawks, who fought through two elimination games on Wednesday and then upset Western Kentucky 8-1 in Friday’s opening elimination game, battled back from an early 2-0 deficit with the five-run second, one keyed by three singles off UL-Lafayette starter Victoria Brown and Navarette’s two-out homer to left field.
“Every time that happens, you have to battle back,” said Brown (6-1). “I knew my teammates had my back with the bats.”
Walsh’s shot provided a 9-5 advantage, and the Cajuns put the nightcap away with a five-run seventh inning keyed by Natalie Fernandez’ three-run triple in the right-field gap.
Earlier in the day, UL-Lafayette led USA (40-11) 1-0 entering the seventh inning before Amanda Minahan’s two-run homer gave the Jaguars a 2-1 lead. Then, after the Cajuns tied the game on Walsh’s RBI single in the bottom of the seventh, Blair Johnson poked a two-out, two-run homer in the eighth for USA’s winning margin.
“We knew they were going to hit,” Johnson said, “so we had to hit with them.”
The two homers came after Cajuns pitcher Christina Hamilton checked USA to three base runners — two hits and a walk — through the first six innings. Hamilton (23-2) had won 20 straight decisions dating back to a Feb. 22 neutral-site loss to South Florida.
UL-Lafayette out-hit the Jaguars 12-6, but USA pitcher Hannah Campbell (17-5) stranded 13 runners in a complete-game 140-pitch performance. The only run for the Cajuns prior to the tying run in the seventh came on a bases-loaded passed ball in the second inning that scored Shelbi Redfearn from third base.
“That game showed the quality of softball we have in this tournament,” USA coach Becky Clark said. “That was two teams that have a real shot of doing something special in the postseason.”
ULM 8, WESTERN KENTUCKY 1: The Warhawks stunned the fourth-seeded Lady Toppers in Friday’s opening game, scoring eight runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings to rally from an early 1-0 deficit and avoid elimination.
Faith Bohack’s two-run homer in the fourth off loser Emily Rousseau (18-18) gave ULM a 2-1 lead, and the Warhawks added four runs on two hits and an error one inning later. Rochelle Roberts’ two-run single in the sixth provided the final two runs in support of winning pitcher Samantha Hamby, who allowed only four hits to the Lady Toppers (33-24-1).
WKU, which played its final Sun Belt game before moving to Conference USA next season, scored its only run when Brooke Holloway drew a bases-loaded walk in the third inning.