LAFAYETTE — If there were going to be a year for the Louisiana-Lafayette softball team to contend for a Women’s College World Series berth — and maybe more — this might be it.
Here’s what the Cajuns bring back: all 116 home runs from a team that hit more per game than anyone in the country; 446 of their 493 hits from a team that finished No. 10 nationally in batting average; one-third of the preseason All-Sun Belt roster and a contender for national player of the year in Lexie Elkins.
Largely on the strength of that offensive firepower, they are billed as the No. 11 team in the preseason rankings.
The expected offensive onslaught is enough to overshadow the fact that the team lacks the same experience in the circle, after the graduation of studs Christina Hamilton and Jordan Wallace. Though there’s some uncertainty about who it may be to fill their production, coach Mike Lotief sounds confident that someone will seize the opportunity once the games start.
But it’s not necessarily the returning talent that has Lotief excited about this season, which begins Friday in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
“I think we all get into a trap of assuming that because somebody had a great season last year, then automatically it’s going to happen again,” Lotief said. “I try to get our kids ready for not really being so result- and outcome-oriented as much as continuing to trust the process, continuing to prepare and realizing that this is a game of failure and it’s a game of struggle.”
It’s the returning mindset, the same one that vaulted the Cajuns to four consecutive super regional tournaments, that has Lotief excited. There’s no resting on laurels.
“This team has continued to impress me,” Lotief said. “Their work ethic, their ability to continue to connect with each other and push each other to be the best that they can be, day in, day out, is so impressive. It’s fun to watch a group of kids set their goals and then find their way not only to just look within, but to find a way to motivate themselves and each other to strive for excellence every day.”
Perhaps the best part about that for Lotief is that two of his more frequent motivators also happen to be two of his best players.
Elkins and her senior teammate Shellie Landry combined to hit .398 and drive in 142 runs last season. Only 61 Division I teams — teams! — hit more home runs per game than Elkins and Landry combined to hit last season (.96).
“Both of those kids, when healthy and when going right, they’re incredible,” Lotief said. “Not only for what they do offensively, for what they do in power production, but I’ve seen growth in both of those kids in how they lead and how they affect other people around them.”
One of the responsibilities Lotief is putting on Elkins’ shoulders is to lead an inexperienced pitching staff, which lost nearly 75 percent of the innings thrown last season to graduation.
It’s not as if the cupboard is completely bare. Alex Stewart posted a team-best 2.09 ERA last year in 63.2 innings, and Kylee Jo Trahan struck out 27 in 23 innings as a true freshman. They’re joined by Victoria Brown, who won 15 games in her first two seasons before an injury sidelined her last year, as well as junior Macey Smith and redshirt freshman Allison Deville.
Lotief said it’s unfair to expect his relatively inexperienced staff to step in and replicate what Wallace and Hamilton did last year, especially right away.
“Hopefully we have some experience in some other places so we don’t have to put undue pressure on one or two kids,” Lotief said. “It’s going to be a work in progress. But I think we have some good kids; we have a good system. There’s going to be some growing pains along the way, but I think those kids are going to get where they need to get.”
It’s shaping up to be another good year for the Cajuns softball team, even if they manage to trip somewhere along the way.
“We know with the increased scrutiny that is getting ready to happen, the high expectations — all that stuff that goes into it — they’re going to be challenged some more,” Lotief said. “There’s no way to predict or to understand what the adversity’s going to be ... or how we’re going to handle it. That’s the fun and excitement of the season.”