Michael Lotief insists his Ragin’ Cajuns must continue to improve _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Louisiana-Lafayette softball coach Michael Lotief speaks with his players in the circle during a game with Michigan earlier this season.

LAFAYETTE — It’s been nothing but Sun Belt Conference title perfection for the Louisiana-Lafayette softball team during the past decade, but Cajuns coach Michael Lotief knows league parity has already arrived.

Lotief said UL-Lafayette is no longer the only powerful softball team in the SBC.

The Cajuns, who have claimed 11 straight regular-season league championships, begin their title defense Saturday in Atlanta, opening league play with a doubleheader against Georgia State at 1 p.m.

GSU and UL-Lafayette conclude the three-game weekend series with a noon game Sunday.

UL-Lafayette (19-6-1) began the week ranked No. 20 in the USA Today poll and 22nd in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll.

Lotief pointed out SBC opponent South Alabama is ranked higher than the Cajuns in both polls.

“There was a time when (conference games) were an easy stretch for Cajuns softball, but not anymore,” he said. “We’re really going to have to fight. I’ll bet at the end of conference, it’s going to come down to a game here or a game there or a pitch there.”

Lotief said the Cajuns have played well during the non-conference part of their schedule, but many of his players on a young team have not experienced conference games.

“It’s going to be different for them,” he said. “Everyone has the scoop on each other, and they know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and that presents a different type of chess match.”

The Panthers, who entered the SBC this season, offer a bit of a mystery, since the two teams have never played as conference opponents.

“We’re facing the unknown, a new opponent and learning on the fly,” Lotief said.

The Cajuns offense is led by senior second baseman Natalie Fernandez, who leads the conference in hitting (.506). Fernandez, as the leadoff hitter, has also scored 35 runs.

Freshman outfielder Haley Hayden, who played a West Monroe, is batting .360 with nine home runs and 31 runs batted in.

Catcher Lexie Elkins, a Texas Tech transfer, has eight homers and 26 RBIs.

The offensive problem for the Cajuns has been the bottom of the lineup. None of the UL-Lafayette batters in the six through nine spots is batting higher than .243.

Much of the Cajuns’ success this season has come from pitching. Juniors Christina Hamilton (9-1) and Jordan Wallace (8-2) have formed an effective combination.

The two combined for wins on Wednesday when the Cajuns defeated Sam Houston State in a doubleheader at Lamson Park.

Wallace has been a steady pitcher since her freshman year, but Lotief said one of the surprises has been Hamilton, who struggled early in her college career.

“(Hamilton) has been the most consistent pitcher for us at the start of the season,” he said. “She has been able to command the lower part of the zone and change speeds. Her spin rate is up, as is her rotation. She is also mentally tougher and more confident.”

Georgia State is 13-13 and like the Cajuns, the Panthers, who have hit 21 homers, have relied on offense.

GSU has a .299 team batting average.

Kaitlyn Medlan (3.12), Eron Milton (4.32) and Taylor Thorpe (7.88) are GSU’s top three pitchers.