One of the first challenges Handsome Monica faced in Louisiana-Lafayette’s baseball program was getting used to the head coach standing over his shoulder.
The Mandeville native with the unique first name has been catching since age 11 — but on most of his previous teams, he had someone else providing guidance.
“At a lot of schools, you don’t really get that close with the head coach,” Monica said. “You usually work with the assistant coaches.”
Tony Robichaux, entering his 31st season and his 23rd at UL-Lafayette, which faces Southeastern Louisiana in Friday's season opener, has always served as his own pitching coach on his way to 1,080 career victories.
That puts Robichaux in much closer contact with the pitching staff — and the catchers — than most collegiate head coaches.
“It’s a really good advantage,” said Monica, who will likely be behind the plate for all three weekend games in the Tangi Travel Baseball Classic hosted by Southeastern Louisiana this weekend. “He works with me all the time and corrects me every single time I do something wrong, which is good. It’s the only way I’m going to figure things out.”
Robichaux doesn’t bat an eye when talking about the talents of Monica, who was a 33rd-round draft pick by the Atlanta Braves after one year at Northwest Florida State.
“No question, he’s earned this spot,” said Robichaux, whose Cajuns start their quest for a fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance at 6 p.m. Friday. “What he has to do now is work with each pitcher and grow with them, because each of them’s different.”
"Different" definitely describes the catching position for the Cajuns. During last year’s 43-21 season, Nick Thurman caught every pitch of every inning of all 64 games, after starting 57 games as a junior. Thurman, who had 144 catching starts in a four-year career, was the Outstanding Player in last year’s Sun Belt Conference tournament, when the Cajuns won a league-record third straight title.
“Thurm was a great catcher,” Monica said. “I have really big shoes to fill. He had all the pitchers’ trust, and I came in here knowing that. I’ve been working hard and getting to know each and every one of them, and I think we have a good enough relationship now that they can trust me and we can get the season started on a good note.”
“He’s a really smart guy,” junior All-American closer Dylan Moore said of Monica. “He had a 4.0 (grade-point average) this past semester. He’s got the system down pretty well. There’s times you have to shake, like you do every catcher, but he’s studied a lot, so it’s easy to pitch to him. Plus, he’s an older guy.”
Robichaux has always put much responsibility on his catchers, letting the more experienced of them call much of their own game. That dates to before Thurman, and even before current major league All-Star Jonathon Lucroy’s three-year Cajuns career. That won’t change — especially because Monica had a year of backup duty at Arizona and the full year of junior college.
“Our system’s not a dictatorship,” Robichaux said. “The catcher always looks in anyway. Even though Thurm could call the game ... up to 40 or 50 percent of the pitches may be called in. The pitchers may not know that, but we tell the catchers to look on every pitch, and it’s kind of scary how often we agree on pitches.”
Monica earned NJCAA National Team honors last year when he hit .348 with 13 homers and 48 RBIs. He also threw out 12 baserunners. A year earlier, he hit .300 in nine appearances for Arizona.
Friday’s game is even more of a homecoming for Monica than his signing with the Cajuns last year. He prepped at St. Paul's in Covington, a half-hour down Interstate 10 from Hammond, and was an all-state pick after hitting .415 in a four-year career.
“I never thought coming here that my first game would be around where I grew up,” Monica said. “All my family’s going to be there and a lot of my high school friends. I can’t wait to get out there and be a part of it.”