LAFAYETTE — A year ago, the only question surrounding Louisiana-Lafayette’s baseball team was how deep its postseason run would be.
The Ragin’ Cajuns returned their everyday lineup virtually intact and had a deep pitching corps with weekend starters all but identified before the season. True to form, the Cajuns were ranked No. 1 nationally for the final third of the season, finished 58-10, hosted both NCAA regional and super regional rounds and never lost more than one game in a row until bowing out to Ole Miss in the super regionals.
Nine position players, all of them returnees, started 45 or more games and had at least 170 at-bats. The closest a newcomer came to a consistent role was junior college infielder Greg Davis, who played in 37 games and batted 86 times. Pitching-wise, the rotation of Austin Robichaux, Carson Baranik and Cody Boutte combined to go 28-6, and all had an ERA of 3.36 or better.
Beginning Thursday, when the Cajuns open spring drills for the 2015 season, as the saying goes, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard.
That storied group is all but gone. Only shortstop Blake Trahan — a participant with Team USA over the summer — and outfielder Dylan Butler return in the field. The closest the Cajuns have to veteran pitchers are senior right-hander Greg Milhorn, limited by injury to 36.2 innings, and sophomore fireballer Reagan Bazar.
“That’s the nature of the beast,” said Tony Robichaux, who opens his third decade as Cajuns coach when UL-Lafayette visits Texas-San Antonio on Feb. 13. “That’s just the norm in college baseball. We’re one of the rare sports that deals with a professional draft, and not only do we deal with it as juniors we also deal with players that are coming into your program. We have it on both ends.”
The back end of the draft eight months ago was devastating for the Cajuns: Six juniors departed after last season for the pro ranks.
“It’s a constant battle,” Robichaux said. “That’s why there’s so much parity in college baseball. It’s so hard to sustain your team and keep it together.”
Keeping things together was a big key in UL-Lafayette’s fall practices, sessions that were very different from recent seasons.
“The fall’s different every year, predicated on the age and experience of your team,” Robichaux said. “Certain years you have to play yourself into a good club. Last year, coming off 43 wins, we thought we could get up and get going early. This team, there was so much teaching that it slowed things down. We had to really take time to do teaching. The handful of veterans we had, it wasn’t much fun for them, but hopefully we get back next week and everybody will be more excited.”
The Cajuns will begin practice at the NCAA-mandated date and will have four weeks before the three-game Feb. 13-15 opening series at UTSA. UL-Lafayette plays a midweek Feb. 18 game at Northwestern State before opening its home season Friday, Feb. 20, against Stony Brook.
If there is rebuilding to be done, having an established shortstop is a good place to start — and the Cajuns have that in Trahan. The Kinder native, a returning American Baseball Coaches Association All-American who already has been named to two preseason All-America squads, hit .355 with 12 doubles, two triples, four home runs — including a Sun Belt Conference tournament-winning one against Texas-Arlington — and 49 RBIs. He had only 10 errors in 68 starts.
“The thing we have to watch out for is we can’t put the whole pressure of the season on (Trahan’s) shoulders,” Robichaux said. “You don’t put the stress of a bridge all in one place. We need everybody to help out and not feel that because (Trahan) played for Team USA that he has to carry us. The last two years, nobody had to carry our team; the stress of the burden was carried throughout the whole team.”
Belle Chasse product Butler, a rarity as a four-year contributor — he led the Cajuns in homers as a freshman in 2012 — hit .298 with six home runs and 31 RBIs last year and should be at a corner outfield slot. LSU-Eunice transfer Derek Herrington was impressive at center field in fall drills.
Davis (.314) could wind up at first or third, Brenn Conrad takes over at second base for older brother and Sun Belt Player of the Year Jace Conrad and backup Joe Robbins and the highly regarded Barbe High signee duo of Kennon Fontenot and Gunner Leger will be in a mix in the infield. Junior Nick Thurman has been the backup catcher for two seasons and should step in there.
Robichaux is his own pitching coach, and that’s where his concerns with inexperience take hold. Milhorn (5-2, 7.12) was penciled in as a starter last year before fighting early-season struggles with an oblique muscle and never fully recovered.
Bazar (4-0, 2.27), who touched 100 mph early last season on the scoreboard’s speed gun, was the closer for part of the season. His role, and that of part-time performers Chris Charpentier, Riley Cooper, Connor Toups and Nick Zaunbrecher, are still to be determined. Only Charpentier (17.1) pitched more than 10 innings from that group.
“We have some older guys defensively, and we really need them to play well to offset the inexperience we’re going to have on the mound,” Robichaux said.
Highly regarded freshman Trace Guidry returns after sitting out 2014 with an injury, and Robichaux was high on Jennings product Evan Guillory, also a freshman, during fall drills. Still, the pitching staff will get a lot of close early-season looks.
“That’s the toughest place to be young at,” Robichaux said. “You can’t hide it. The mound’s the highest place on the field. It’s a team game until you hang a curveball with the bases loaded.”