Battler Kara Gremillion makes quick impression as freshman _lowres

UL-Lafayette's Kara Gremillion connects for a single against Texas State during a game April 2, 2016, at Lamson Park in Lafayette.

Advocate file photo by Leslie Westbrook

It’s not like expectations have plummeted for UL-Lafayette’s softball team.

That doesn’t happen when a program has been to 19 straight and 27 of the past 28 NCAA tournaments. Only Arizona and Cal have been to more in that time.

The Ragin’ Cajuns have also been to six Women’s College World Series, and they've and won the Sun Belt Conference in 15 of 17 years, including last year, when they finished with a conference-record 23-1 mark.

But there is realism in the Cajuns camp, and hit home even more this week, when UL-Lafayette wasn’t in its accustomed place atop the Sun Belt coaches’ preseason poll. The Cajuns were tabbed second.

“This is obviously not a normal scenario for us,” new coach Gerry Glasco said. “But it’s the one we got. No excuses. We have to be ready, and I think we are ready. The kids have worked hard, and they’re dedicated to getting better. They have a great attitude about winning ... they expect to win.”

Wins may be more precious than they were last year’s 47-8 season, in which the Cajuns lost in the finals of the Baton Rouge Regional to LSU — their 10th straight trip to a regional final. Before that, UL-Lafayette had advanced to five straight super regionals and made the World Series field in 2014.

Things are different this spring, after a tumultuous October in which 15-year coach Michael Lotief was first suspended and two weeks later terminated amid allegations of verbal and physical assault on student-athletes and co-workers.

Glasco was hired as the fourth coach in program history in November, bringing a record of success as a long-time Southeastern Conference assistant and championships as a head coach in the National Pro Fastpitch league.

But there was still an exodus of three key players — first-team All-Americans D. J. Sanders at shortstop and Aleah Craighton in the outfield and No. 2 pitcher Alyssa Denham — who were loyal to Lotief and who wound up transferring (Sanders went to Oregon; Craighton and Denham went to Arizona).

Grouped with the loss of three senior pitchers and other starters (outfielder Haley Hayden; infielders Kassidy Zeringue and Corin Voinche), and Glasco and his all-new staff have a massive rebuilding job on their hands.

Glasco also said the fall was also a near-nightmare for the players who stuck it out.

“Their fall was disrupted, and they didn’t get the practice time and the coaching reps that they normally would,” he said. “But we’ve got well-coached kids, kids who have had a lot of success.

“Normally when you go into a new program it’s because they’re losing. That obviously isn’t this team. There is a big passion to win inside that locker room and they want to keep that going. You can look at the negative and say it isn’t ideal, but there’s way more positives about this than negatives.”

Glasco hopes the positives start showing themselves, and knows the negatives will also rear their heads, beginning Thursday when UL-Lafayette hosts its annual Mardi Gras Classic. The four-day tournament features six teams and 15 games Thursday-Sunday, and the Cajuns open play at 5 p.m. Thursday against Samford at Lamson Park.

The Cajuns play six games in those four days, beginning a 15-game homestand to open the season that also includes three games against No. 2 Florida on Feb. 17-18. That won’t be the first time Glasco has faced a highly regarded Gator team in his first year with a program.

“Our first year at Georgia, we’d just beaten No. 1 Washington and then went to Florida,” he said of his first season as a Bulldogs assistant in 2009. “We get beat 15-0 and got no-hit in the first game, and 4-0 and we got one hit in the second game. That exposed some things that we focused on, and three months later we were in the finals of the College World Series. We wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t had our weaknesses exposed in those games.”

Even amid the turmoil, UL-Lafayette goes into the season No. 22 in the USA Today/NFCA and No. 24 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball preseason polls. 

The Cajuns’ main weakness, on paper, is in the circle. UL-Lafayette lost Denham and ace Alex Stewart (27-5, 1.81), a senior on last year's team.

Senior Kylee Jo Trahan and sophomore Summer Ellyson had a combined three starts and 27 innings last season, and they will join with freshmen Casey Dixon — last year’s Gatorade prep player of the year in Texas — and Carrie Boswell as the likely pitching corps for the opening tournament.

“You have to have either speed or movement, and unfortunately we don’t have speed,” Glasco said of his staff. “But we have three or four that could emerge as our go-to pitcher. Kylee Jo’s had some days where she’s been phenomenal, and I’m excited about some of what Summer’s shown in practice. I feel much more confident about our pitching now ... I was pretty apprehensive over the break, but my hopes are up right now.”

The Cajuns return three position players in catcher Lexie Comeaux, who hit .333 with 10 homers, outfielder Kelli Martinez (.326) and third baseman Kara Gremillion (.320). All three started all 55 games last season.

“Any conversation about us starts with Kara,” Glasco said of the junior from St. Amant. “She’s a special, talented player. She doesn’t talk much, but in about 15 minutes of our first practice, without saying a word, I knew she was our team leader.”

Gremillion’s younger sister Kourtney is the probable starter at first base along with fellow freshman Jolie Readeaux, who may also platoon at second with junior college All-American Brittany Holland. The other infield lock is Oklahoma transfer shortstop Alissa Dalton, who was regarded enough by Sun Belt coaches to name her to the preseason all-conference team before she played a game.

“Defensively she’s as good as any shortstop in the country, and I expect her to be good offensively for us,” Glasco said of Dalton.

Returnee Beth Ashley (.257, 3 HR) is in the outfield group along with freshman Cassidy Chaumont, and Glasco said he will find a lineup spot for freshman Caitlin Garcia, who at 5-foot-4 has stunned coaches with her long-ball abilities.

“We’re 12 or 13 solid players deep,” Glasco said. “We’ve got a lot of talent and quite a bit of speed, and I feel like our defense may be the strength of our club. I’m hoping we can shock the world, but the worst thing that can happen early is that we learn about ourselves, and that’s a positive thing.”