Cajuns battle through struggles to sweep South Alabama _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRAD BOWIE -- UL-Lafayette's Aleah Craighton makes contact against South Alabama on Sunday at Lamson Park. Craighton went 3-for-7 in the doubleheader sweep, hitting two homers and driving in four runs.

LAFAYETTE — The Lousiana-Lafayette softball team is hoping that having waded through a pond full of gators and ducks will have them ready as they gradually get into the deeper end of the postseason pool.

The first part of postseason starts Thursday at 10 a.m. when the No. 9 Cajuns (40-7) take on Georgia State in the Sun Belt Conference Softball Championship in Mobile, Alabama.

The seniors down to the sophomores have experienced the atmosphere of the conference tournament before. The biggest tests for the freshmen so far have been weekend series against the likes of top-5 opponents such as the Florida Gators and Oregon Ducks.

“It gives them a taste of it (a postseason atmosphere),” Cajuns coach Mike Lotief said. “They are the only ones that know if they are loving it or if they are a little uncomfortable, or whatever emotions that environment and situation brought about. But from what I saw, those kids are not going to blink.”

Sophomore center fielder Aleah Craighton has been on a tear heading into the tournament. She led the Sun Belt during conference games in on-base percentage (.593), runs (33) and home runs (11). Even though she has a redshirt season and nearly two full years of game experience, she was glad to get the at-bats and extra seasoning against Florida and Oregon.

“In those high-competition games, we get a view of what postseason will be like and what we need to do to beat those teams,” Craighton said. “It’s nice to see those better pitches and see a rise ball and a changeup. It’s a good learning experience.”

Georgia State (31-26) has the momentum of a 10-2 run-rule victory over Louisiana-Monroe on Wednesday night. The Panthers racked up 14 hits against ULM, with six players getting at least two hits. Leadoff hitter Taylor Anderson finished 2-for-4 with a double and three RBIs. Taylor Bradley had a pair of doubles and two RBIs.

As Cajuns catcher Lexie Elkins comes back into the fray after recovering from a thumb injury, Lotief has made it clear the No. 1 objective this weekend is to do all that’s possible to remain collectively healthy.

That might mean a reduced workload for Sun Belt Pitcher of the Year Alex Stewart, who is 25-4 with a 1.42 ERA. Stewart picked up all three wins for the Cajuns in a regular-season ending sweep of ULM, as junior Macey Smith logged a few innings of relief in that series opener and picked up a save.

“I thought Alex showed great presence in the circle and Macey came in there, did well and saved some innings for us,” associate head coach Chris Malveaux said.

The Cajuns are at No. 12 in the latest NCAA RPI rankings, which puts them on track to host a regional and then have to travel if they advance to a super regional. “More and more conferences are putting less emphasis on the tournament,” Lotief said. “The selection committee — because of the way they have adjusted the RPI — they look at the body of work during the season more. Our kids want to win the tournament, and we will try to win the tournament, but not at all costs.”

Elkins among finalists

Elkins was named a Top 10 finalist for the 2016 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award, the Amateur Softball Association of American announced on Wednesday.

The USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award, which is considered the most prestigious honor in Division I women’s collegiate softball, recognizes the outstanding athletic achievement by female players across the country.

The top three finalists will be announced May 25, while the winner of the award will be revealed on May 31 before to the start of the NCAA Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.