Change in softball format a win-win for Cajuns, Sun Belt _lowres

Advocate photo by TERRI FENSEL -- Louisiana-Lafayette's Samantha Walsh is greeted by her teammates after hitting a game-winning home run against Louisiana-Monroe. The Ragin' Cajuns play their first game in the Sun Belt Conference tournament Friday at Lamson Park.

LAFAYETTE — In the opinion of Louisiana-Lafayette softball coach Michael Lotief, the Sun Belt Conference tournament, which begins at 10 a.m. today at Lamson Park, is an illustration of no team left behind.

All eight SBC teams have a chance to capture the tournament title in a new conference format which also provides an advantage for teams that have had successful seasons.

UL-Lafayette (41-7-1), the regular-season champion and No. 1 seed, won’t play until Thursday in a game scheduled for 5 p.m.

Seventh-seeded Troy (22-29-2) and sixth-seeded Louisiana-Monroe (22-25) play the tournament’s opener, followed by a contest between eighth-seeded Texas-Arlington (20-32) and fifth-seeded Texas State (26-29) scheduled for noon.

The tournament is a single-elimination affair until Friday’s games.

Georgia State (30-25), the third seed, plays the ULM-Troy winner at 3 p.m. Tuesday. Fourth-seeded Western Kentucky (32-22-1) plays the TSU-UTA winner at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Second-seeded South Alabama (38-11) and the Cajuns play in the only two games set for Thursday.

The championship game is at 3 p.m. Saturday.

Lotief said the tournament arrangement in more inclusive and was devised and approved by the SBC softball coaches, while league officials set the times of the games.

“I like this format. I think it’s a lot better than the ones we have had in the past,” he said. “I think the best teams should get a bye for having good seasons. In the past, you have No. 1 playing No. 8. In that case it was a no-win situation because of the RPI considerations.

“In this year’s tournament, everyone is back on equal footing. It also benefits the No. 1 and 2 teams and also allows the other teams a chance to come to your tournament, so you’re not eliminating anybody.”

Although the Cajuns lost only once in conference play this season, Lotief said five teams have a good shot at winning the tournament.

“Georgia State is probably playing the best of anyone right now, while South Alabama has the best pitching,” Lotief said. “Western Kentucky has a large number of seniors, while Texas State has done some incredible hitting as of late.”

Although the Cajuns have perhaps the youngest team, with seven underclassmen in the lineup, Lotief said it’s nonetheless been a special season.

“This group has collectively stayed together and epitomized what it is to be a team. At times we have had kids who have struggled and gone through tough times, but they have stuck together and never been pushed apart,” he said. “Now with the postseason comes a new mindset. There are things that we have to get after and things we have to accomplish.

“I know our kids are excited about hosting and playing in front of their home crowd. This won’t happen (hosting the tournament) for another four or five years, so for most of them, this will be a career experience.”

The Cajuns enter the tournament with a long list of team offensive superlatives.

Included among those are highest batting average (.300), slugging percentage (.516), on-base percentage (.397), runs scored (271), RBIs (249), home runs (67) and total bases (.620).

Second baseman Natalie Fernandez leads the league with a .457 batting average.

Sophomore catcher Lexie Elkins is fifth with a .378 average, but tops in slugging percentage (.748), on-base percentage (.550), RBI (52) and total bases (101).

South Alabama leads the league in pitching, with Hannah Campbell and Farish Beard boasting the top ERAs. The duo has struck out a combined 322 batters and walked only 48.

The Jaguars also have a 1.20 team ERA.

Georgia State and ULM are right behind the Cajuns in team batting average (.291). The Warhawks also have a league-leading number of stolen bases (121).

The problem for ULM, however, has been pitching. The Warhawks have the league-high earned run average (4.56).

Lotief said the Cajuns have three pitchers available to help navigate through the tournament bracket.

UL-Lafayette’s Christina Hamilton is 19-1 with a 1.37 ERA. Jordan Wallace, also a junior, is 14-3, but has dealt with control problems most of the year. Wallace leads the league in wild pitches (30) and is second in batters hit (24).

Lotie said Wallace’s situation is a “complicated issue,” that he thinks is in an ongoing state of resolution.

“You’re not going to be able to do it (pitching) with just one kid. In the tournament it’s going to come down to matchups,” Lotief said. “When you have those matchups, it comes down to the more arms you have available, rather than relying on just one person — well, that’s a plus.”