LAFAYETTE — Don’t tell Louisiana-Lafayette softball coach Michael Lotief he didn’t lose much from last year’s team.
The 2014 Ragin’ Cajuns, who reached the Women’s College World Series for the sixth time in school history, have a No. 9 preseason ranking after losing only two players from last year’s squad.
But, according to Lotief, replacing those two players — second baseman Natalie Fernandez and outfielder Shelbi Redfearn — is going to be tougher than just erasing their names in the lineup and filling those spots with new ones.
“We are losing a lot,” Lotief said. “Natalie Fernandez was the heart and soul of that team. She was the leader. Shelbi Redfearn was our hottest hitter in the post season. We’re losing those two bats, and we’re losing that leadership and it hurts us.
“It’s not as easy as looking and saying ‘we went to the World Series last year, we only lost these two. so we’re going to go back.’ I think that’s very dangerous thinking.”
Lotief compared the 2015 Cajuns to the New Orleans Saints — a team that got rid of veteran linebacker Jonathan Vilma and safety Roman Harper in search of players perceived to be better.
“People said those guys were over the hill,” Lotief said. “You try to replace them with more talented people on paper, but it’s what you lose in the locker room. You lose leadership and that person that gets in your face and keeps the standard of excellence where it’s supposed be.
“It’s very unique to find kids that want to compete at a championship level on every play. We’re trying to find the kids that want to set that tone and lead up to that standard of excellence.”
Lotief said he knows the process of finding his next leader is a work in progress. Fernandez didn’t assume her role until last season — her fourth with the program. He said the leadership missed from Fernandez’s exit probably won’t fall on one person’s shoulders and will probably come from underclassmen.
“Multiple people are going to have to assume that role,” Lotief said. “Natalie didn’t step into that role until her senior year. This year, we are going to ask someone to step into that role perhaps prematurely, but this season will present itself with enough adversity that will allow someone to step forward.”
And it appears the adversity has hit the Cajuns early. Lotief’s three big guns in the pitching staff — Victoria Brown, Christina Hamilton and Jordan Wallace — are all battling through injuries. Hamilton, who became the superstar of last season’s postseason run, will likely be unavailable for opening day.
Lotief, however, isn’t bothered and certainly has tapered his expectations. He drew motivation from yet another football team, Ohio State, a team that won the national championship earlier this month while starting third-string quarterback Cardale Jones.
“We have to be resilient like Ohio State,” Lotief said. “First string went down, second string steps up. Second string went down, third string steps up. Going into last season, everyone expected Jordan to return to form and she didn’t. Christina did just that — she seized that opportunity and filled the role for that team.
“I have been doing this long enough that once you think you can predict how a season will play out, the game is going to sneak up and throw you a curveball. You need to be prepared, and this team works extremely hard. We are preparing hard, and we’ll see what it presents us.”