The players all use the same mantra, insisting that this year’s Louisiana-Lafayette baseball team will surprise people.
Head coach Tony Robichaux won’t be surprised, although he admits that his squad is hugely different from the one that topped the national polls late last season.
“Rebuilding is an excuse,” Robichaux said this week as his team finished preseason preparations for a 2015 campaign which starts Friday at Texas-San Antonio. “It’s an alibi to hang your hat on if you don’t do well.”
If there was a team that should be exempt from early expectations, it’s the Ragin’ Cajuns. Both the pitching staff and the batting lineup were decimated after last year’s 58-10 campaign, with six juniors signing pro contracts to join the departing senior class.
Only two position players return, and only one pitcher on this year’s roster — senior right-hander Greg Milhorn — had more than one start last season. And Milhorn’s coming off an oblique injury that derailed him after less than a month.
The last time the Cajuns had such a mammoth rebuilding project was after the 2000 College World Series season, when most of the squad used Omaha as their collegiate finales. The next year, UL-Lafayette went 28-28, lost nine of its last 11 games and didn’t make the field for the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
“The realist in me, we’ve lost a lot to have to replace,” Robichaux said. “When you lose six juniors to the draft, that’s a lot. It is what it is. We have to get out, get ready to play and mature and grow these freshmen.”
Everyone’s not buying the total rebuilding, since the Cajuns have been tabbed to repeat as Sun Belt champions in the preseason coaches’ poll. That same group picked junior shortstop Blake Trahan as preseason Player of the Year.
“Polls, especially the early ones, don’t mean a whole lot,” Robichaux said. “The most important poll is the one at the end. We appreciate that the coaches in the league recognize our potential, but potential doesn’t win you championships. You have to go out and earn it.”
“This is a different year and this is a different team,” Trahan said. “We don’t have all that experience like we had last year, but we’ve got a lot of young guys that are really, really good players.”
That also describes Trahan, who was recently tabbed a second-team All-America pick by Collegiate Baseball and Perfect Game. He hit .355 with 12 doubles, four homers, 49 RBI and 58 runs scored one year ago, and was the Most Outstanding Player in the Sun Belt Tournament.
After a postseason run that included a .512 batting average and a .732 slugging mark in the league tournament and the NCAA regional and super regional rounds, he was a first-team ABCA All-American and was named to play last summer on the USA Baseball Collegiate National team.
Robichaux knows that Trahan and fellow returnees Dylan Butler (.298, six homers, 31 RBI) and Tyler Girouard (.324, three homers, 32 RBI) will be effective. He also knows they can’t do it by themselves.
“Players like B.T. (Trahan), they can’t try to shoulder this burden,” Robichaux said. “He has to be one of our players, he can’t try to be the guy to get us to 58 wins. They just have to leave last year’s ghosts alone. They’re going to be judged against that, which is going to be difficult for them.”
The likely lineup around Trahan at shortstop will be senior Greg Davis (.314, 23 RBIs in 25 starts in 2014) at first base, Brenn Conrad — younger brother of departed Sun Belt MVP Jace Conrad — or newcomer Stefan Trosclair at second and Girouard and backup Joe Robbins at third base.
Butler joins with backup Kyle Clement and newcomers Derek Herrington and Adam Angelle in the outfield, with Robbins also set to see some outfield action. Herrington, Trosclair and Angelle are all products of the strong LSU-Eunice program.
Nick Thurman (.222), backup to departed standout Michael Strentz last year, takes over full-time catching duties.
Pitching is a bigger concern for Robichaux, who serves as his own pitching coach. Only Milhorn and reliever Reagan Bazar can be called veterans, since no other hurler threw more than 17 innings last year, and the staff includes 11 freshmen and four other newcomers.
“Pitching is going to be the thing where you’re going to see a lot of guys come in and out,” Robichaux said. “Nothing is going to be settled. We’ve got to develop some mid-week starters, and we’ve got to develop the bullpen.”
Milhorn was a weekend starter last year before his oblique injury in early March, and managed a 5-2 record but had late-season struggles that ballooned his ERA to 7.12.
The senior right-hander is set for a Sunday start in the opening series against a UTSA squad that went 35-26 and reached last May’s Conference USA championship game. The Roadrunners return 17 lettermen including five of eight position players and two of their three top pitchers.
The Cajuns are slated to go with sophomore right-hander Chris Charpentier (10, 4.67 in eight appearances) in Friday’s 6 p.m. opener. It’ll be Charpentier’s second collegiate start, the first coming in the NCAA regional round, and that’s one more than Saturday starter and freshman right-hander Evan Guillory.
“Even though (Nick) Zaunbrecher’s back, Charpentier’s back and Milhorn’s back, (none of them) has a full season under their belt, whether it’s due to injury or experience,” Robichaux said. “So you’ll see us throw a lot of arms, we’ll throw a lot of people.”