Advocate photo by LEE CELANO -- Louisiana-Lafayette's Kendall Smith slides safely into second base as Oklahoma's Jessica Vest waits for the throw during a March 15 game in Lamson Park. Smith, who had six at-bats before last weekend, delivered a key single in the Cajuns' 8-3 win Sunday over Texas State.

LAFAYETTE — Numbers and expectations weren’t particularly important three months ago for Louisiana-Lafayette softball coach Michael Lotief.

What’s been significant since the season started, Lotief said, is the Cajuns’ development as a young team.

“Since the start of the season, we have been able to grow our base a little bit, and our young kids have gotten experience and benefitted from it,” Lotief said Monday. Hopefully that is what continues to keep us going.”

UL-Lafayette (25-6-1) has won 17 its past 18 games and is 6-0 in the Sun Belt Conference. The Cajuns face perhaps their toughest test in league play this weekend, they visit Western Kentucky (23-10-1, 6-0) in a three-game SBC series that begins with a doubleheader Saturday in Bowling Green, Ky.

Although they’re both undefeated in the conference, UL-Lafayette and WKU are a half-game behind South Alabama (29-3, 1-0), which began last week ranked No. 12 in the USA Today poll and 13th in the ESPN/USA Softball poll.

Lotief said he tried to avoid visualizing where his team would stand at this point when he contemplated the preseason roster, which contains 12 sophomores and 10 freshmen.

“I never like expectations with numbers,” said Lotief, whose team ended the weekend at No. 20 in the USA Today poll. “What I see right now is kids growing up, learning and developing and expecting them to get beter.

“Right now, as I am here today, I see us more able to compete and not depend on just one hitter or just one pitcher.”

Lotief illustrated his point with the decision to use freshman outfield Kendall Smith as a pinch hitter in the sixth inning Sunday against Texas State.

Smith, who had only six previous at-bats this season, delivered a key single that helped prolong the sixth inning when the Cajuns rallied for seven runs in an 8-3 win.

Lotief said Smith, who is batting .500, showed some confidence before the at-bat — something that might not have happened earlier this year.

Players are beginning to devise ways on their own to win games without constant help from the coaching staff, something else that didn’t always happen at the start of the year.

“We got back into the dugout in the sixth with Natalie (Fernandez) leading off, and the team knew that was it, the last opportunity. This was the game,” Lotief said.

“I just sat back in my corner of the dugout, watching what was going on.”

Fernandez singled to lead off, catcher Lexie Elkins walked and after Smith’s single, third baseman Samantha Walsh followed with a two-run single as part of the seven-run inning.

Smith’s at bat, said Lotief, was one of the highlights of the weekend sweep over Texas State.

“Kendall Smith hadn’t batted the whole weekend. It was amazing what she did,” Lotief said. “It was also huge because of the situation that she was in and because (Smith) has had limited opportunities.”

Lotief continued to compliment to role of Fernandez, one of only two seniors on the team.

Fernandez leads the SBC in batting average (.510), slugging percentage (.743) and on-base percentage (.602).

Lotief said Fernandez has been especially beneficial with her ability to help with the development of the Cajuns’ young players.

“She has taken a lot of those young players under her wing and helped them understand what the program is all about,” Lotief said. “She’s the voice in that clubhouse and the person whose attitude makes sense to them.”