SAN MARCOS, Texas — Nick Thurman had the Sun Belt baseball tournament Outstanding Player trophy sitting in front of him, one he had received only minutes earlier after the game’s final out, but the Louisiana-Lafayette catcher was already thinking about next week.
Thurman and his Ragin’ Cajuns teammates clinched their third straight Sun Belt tournament crown with a 5-0 win over Georgia Southern on Sunday afternoon, and Thurman knew that would be a big step toward the Cajuns claiming one of the 16 NCAA tournament regional sites.
“I think we definitely deserve to host,” Thurman said after hitting a clinching eighth-inning home run and receiving every pitch from the UL-Lafayette pitching staff for the 60th straight game. “We have one of the best atmospheres in the country, and that speaks a lot to our fans. I think we have the greatest fans in the country.”
Thurman, the Cajuns and their fans were granted their wish Sunday night, when Lafayette was announced as one of 16 regional host sites. The 64-team field, as well as the eight national seeds and the pairings in each regional, will be announced at 11 a.m. Monday on ESPNU, with regional play to begin Friday.
Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux said bringing a regional back to M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field, the four-decade-old stadium that will be demolished within the month to make room for a brand new facility, was more for the fans and the school than for his team and program.
“The one thing that our players and coaches wanted was to have it back in Lafayette for our university,” he said. “We’re trying to continue to move forward in everything we can, building a nice stadium to reward the fans. Now we can close out the ‘Tigue’ the right way and reward those fans who sold out our stadium from the first week of the season.”
The Cajuns last hosted a regional round two years ago, when they won four straight after an opening 1-0 loss to Jackson State, beating Mississippi State twice on the final two days to advance to the super regional round. They also hosted a super regional in 2014 but fell in a best-of-three series to Ole Miss.
The only other regional at Moore Field came in the Cajuns’ College World Series season of 2000, when they swept three games and knocked off top-ranked South Carolina in super regional play to earn their only CWS berth.
The team and travel party were on their bus, not halfway through the seven-hour drive from San Marcos, and almost at a dead stop in traffic near Sealy, Texas, when word came down of the host berth. The bus erupted with yells even louder than those from the dogpile in the infield four hours earlier.
It took a minute for Robichaux and the squad to realize Lafayette got the only regional awarded to a program outside the “Power Five” conferences. Thirteen sites were divided between the SEC and ACC, while the Big 12’s Texas Tech and TCU landed host sites.
“That’s where the true honor is,” Robichaux said. “Look at who you’re with. We may be a mid-major, but we don’t have to play like one.”
The Cajuns (41-19) became one of only a handful of teams to reach the 40-win mark in each of the past four seasons in Saturday’s 17-10 semifinal win over Arkansas State. The squad was a lock for the NCAA field even before the Sun Belt tournament, but Robichaux said his team didn’t play like it had anything locked up.
“(The players) have been very tight-lipped,” he said. “The one thing they constantly said throughout this was, ‘No backup plan.’ They didn’t want to come in and play as if they had a backup plan. We tried to take care of everything in front of us to the best of our ability, and we hoped that would be good enough.”
“This means more than you think,” said sophomore pitcher Wyatt Marks, who limited Georgia Southern to four singles while striking out 10 and walking nobody over seven innings Sunday. “For all the folks back at the ‘Tigue,’ it’s definitely the place you want to throw … in that environment.”
The team will gather Monday to watch the official announcement, learning who will be joining them at the “Tigue” this weekend as well as potential locales and opponents for the super regional round.
“We were ready to go play on the road,” Robichaux said. “Early in the year, we couldn’t win on the road, but this team has learned to win on the road. I wasn’t fearful of going on the road. … If my name came up and it was on the road, I didn’t care.”
UL-Lafayette went on the road and won the Houston regional last year, winning three straight games to add on to five straight wins in last season’s Sun Belt tournament before falling to LSU in the super regional round in Baton Rouge.
This year, the Cajuns go into their 16th regional — their 12th in Robichaux’s 22-year Cajuns career — riding a season-long 10-game winning streak.
“I think we kind of deserve it, the way we’ve battled throughout the season,” Thurman said. “We’ve had our ups, we’ve had our downs, but we’ve pulled together strong at the end.”