LAFAYETTE — Patience backed by power propelled the Louisiana-Lafayette softball team to the championship round of the NCAA tournament’s Lafayette regional.
The Ragin’ Cajuns put up 13 hits and forced Texas’ Tiarra Davis to throw 152 pitches on the way to a 9-1 win Saturday at Lamson Park. The victory vaulted the Cajuns into the regional championship; at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, they will face Texas A&M, which eliminated Texas 9-3 on Saturday night.
If the Cajuns lose the first contest Sunday, a second will be played immediately after.
“It was hot, and the kids were grinding through every pitch,” Cajuns coach Mike Lotief said. “We played better than (Friday). We have to rest, hydrate and get this out of our heads.”
The Cajuns (45-7), who played as the visiting team, pushed Davis into a heavy workload from the first inning. Leadoff hitter Haley Hayden drew a walk on a 3-2 pitch as part of a nine-pitch at-bat before Shellie Landry grounded a full-count pitch up the middle and reached on an error. Aleah Craighton put the Cajuns on the board when she sent a single to right that brought home Hayden.
Even though the Cajuns left a pair of runners on, they made Davis throw 37 pitches to get three outs.
“The hitters did a good job today, even on some at-bats that didn’t end with a good outcome,” Lotief said. “It was really team offense today and (Friday).”
Landry pushed the Cajuns’ advantage to 3-0 in the third by lining a two-run homer to left. It was the 100th home run of the season for the Cajuns, who lead the country in that category.
Landry had taken a few mental notes during Hayden’s lengthy at-bats.
“I knew once (Davis) threw two or three in the dirt to Haley that she would want to attack the zone,” Landry said.
The Longhorns registered six hits through the first three innings against Alex Stewart (28-4), but they failed to push a run across thanks to Stewart wriggling out of two-out jams each time.
“I just pitched to contact. I have a great defense, and I know they have my back,” she said.
Aside from that game plan, Stewart had to get back into a rhythm and make mechanical adjustments after she was called for a handful of illegal pitches early in the Sun Belt Conference championship game last Saturday.
“(Stewart) showed up Monday, and she went to work,” Lotief said. “She did a lot of mechanics work, and she did a good job. She couldn’t throw a million pitches this week (to test it out). She had to make the adjustment intellectually.”
The Cajuns gradually increased their lead by scoring a run in the fifth on a DJ Sanders single that brought home pinch runner Kendall Smith. Lexie Elkins widened the gap in the sixth when she sent a double deep to center that made it over center fielder Lindsey Stephens’ head.
The Cajuns had taken a 9-0 lead before Stephens ensured Texas would not be shut out. With two down in the bottom of the seventh, Stephens sent a solo homer over the wall in left. It was Stephens’ third homer of the regional and her fifth game in a row with a home run.
“(Stephens) is beyond a bright spot on our team,” Texas coach Connie Clark said. “She has been a captain for the last two years. She is as good a voice as we have had in the clubhouse in my 20 years at Texas. That is how much I respect Lindsey Stephens.”
Stewart recorded the final out on a pop-up to second base. She finished with 81 pitches, including a four-inning stretch where she threw 29 of 35 for strikes.
Was that efficiency a big plus as an energy saver?
“We will find our how helpful it is,” Lotief said. “We know from having to go against Baylor (twice in the regional championship) last season that there is more script to be written.”