Half of the season had come and gone, and UL-Lafayette’s baseball team was still in its version of purgatory.
The Ragin’ Cajuns were barely above the break-even mark, holding a 15-13 record on the first Sunday of April, and were 7-6 at the midway point of Sun Belt Conference play.
For a team and a program that had won 101 games the previous two NCAA tournament seasons — one that was ranked No. 1 in the nation less than one year earlier — this was intolerable.
“This was not going to be a rebuilding year,” said senior outfielder Evan Powell, a sentiment that he both verbally and physically hammered home to UL-Lafayette’s newcomers.
That point was made in some heated skirmishes during fall workouts, but it took a team meeting and a near back-of-the-bus throwdown on one lengthy road trip for that attitude to take hold.
“They saw it as an unacceptable first half,” Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux said, “and they got together and mapped out a plan for the second half. Our biggest goal as coaches after that was making sure they knew that we weren’t going to quit on them.”
That plan took physical shape, in the form of a poster that still remains on the wall of the Cajuns clubhouse after their season ended over the weekend in the NCAA super regional in Baton Rouge. That sign mapped out a trip to 40 wins and a berth in postseason play.
That was a lofty goal considering that UL-Lafayette was stuck in neutral, mired in the realm of average, especially after the storybook 58-10 season of 2014. But Robichaux had reasons to be optimistic, and it wasn’t just because he got a positive vibe from that day’s walk up and down the aisle of the team bus.
“Most people in life quit halfway up the mountain, not at the bottom of it,” he said. “The halfway point is a very, very huge issue in sports. it’s where you decide, ‘Well, we’ll give them another shot next year, or do you man up and really look at yourself.’ ”
Two months later, the Cajuns were 42-21 and in the super regionals with the nation’s 15 other surviving teams, the exact level that the storied 2014 squad reached. They had won 14 of 16 games since that midseason turning point, had claimed the Sun Belt tournament title by winning five win-or-go-home games in a 75-hour period, and had taken three unlikely wins to capture the Houston regional.
The 4-3 and 6-3 losses to LSU in last weekend’s super regional may have ended their season, but it didn’t change the attitude. UL-Lafayette scored 20 runs in its five NCAA games, and 13 of them were scored in the eighth and ninth innings.
“This team doesn’t know how to quit,” said designated hitter Tyler Girouard, one of five departing seniors who all played a key role in the second half of the season. “These guys were going to play until the last out.”
Added outfielder Kyle Clement, who finished as the Cajuns’ leading hitter for average (.346) thanks to his own second-half surge: “We were going to leave it all on the line. I know I was going to leave it all out there on that field.”
Robichaux didn’t know if his team could win 27 of its last 35 heading into the super regional, especially after the shaky first two months.
“We didn’t score many runs and we didn’t play defense in the first half,” he said, “and that led to some tough times for us. But when we got better defensively the pitching got better because the defense got better, and halfway through JT and Bab (assistants Jeremy Talbot and Anthony Babineaux) got with the hitters and said our goal is to get six runs a game. If we can get six a game we can win, and they started getting hooked on that six.”
Over those following 35 games, the Cajuns scored 223 runs — 6.4 per game. They also rose from ninth to fourth in the Sun Belt defensively, and the freshman-dominated pitching staff that included starters Gunner Leger, Wyatt Marks and Evan Guillory and reliever Dylan Moore continued to make strides.
There were still hiccups along the way. UL-Lafayette lost two of three at abysmal Appalachian State, lost two of three to regular-season league champ South Alabama in its final home series, and then had a ninth-inning meltdown in the first game of the league tournament when a 7-4 lead turned into a humiliating 8-7 loss in a matter of five minutes.
But from that point on, the Cajuns won eight in a row to earn their second straight super regional berth.
“I think they had to go through what they went through to be who they are,” Robichaux said. “We all want to win and we’re judged by wins, but you’re going to have bad stuff that you have to overcome. They took that to heart.”