LAFAYETTE — If there was any thought of the Louisiana-Lafayette baseball team going through the motions this week and not putting full emphasis on winning the Sun Belt Conference tournament, coach Tony Robichaux quashed those ideas Monday.
“We have never not put emphasis on winning the tournament,” Robichaux said as his team completed preparations for its Tuesday departure for Mobile, Alabama. “We’re not going to pull them up and say, ‘We’re in a regional already, so don’t worry about this weekend.’ Nobody’s even breathed that.”
The Ragin’ Cajuns are in an enviable position when the eight-team tournament opens Wednesday at South Alabama’s Stanky Field. The league regular-season champions blitzed to a 26-4 record in Sun Belt play and won the league by a record-tying seven-game margin.
They enter the tournament ranked second nationally in every major poll. They have the nation’s best record by a wide margin at 49-7 and are a virtual lock to host NCAA regional play next week.
In its opening game at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, top seed UL-Lafayette will face a team it swept in all six meetings this year: No. 8 seed UL-Monroe.
But all Robichaux has to do to motivate his squad even more is show it the record book. Most of the current Cajuns were toddlers or in kindergarten the last time UL-Lafayette won the league tournament — in 1998.
The 2007 Cajuns, the only other team in Sun Belt history to win the regular season by seven games? They lost in the final. The 2010 team that shared the regular-season title? It went two-and-out. The College World Series team in 2000? It exited in the semifinals.
“We talked about having to change the mindset after last weekend,” Robichaux said. “From this point on, it flips because you don’t have 56 games that you have to be good. Now you’re having to try to be good for a five- or six-day period.
“What this team has been good at doing is that they’ve competed, and what’s on the periphery doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if we won the conference or set a school record for wins; the only thing that matters to these guys is to get out and compete. That’s why I think we’ll match up good in changing over to a tournament setting.”
The eight-team tournament is double elimination leading to a single championship game at 1 p.m. Sunday. On UL-Lafayette’s side of the bracket is ULM, fourth-seeded Texas State and fifth-seeded Western Kentucky; the Bobcats and Hilltoppers open the tournament at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
The tournament winner gets the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, which the Cajuns don’t need but the rest of the field has to have to keep playing.
UL-Lafayette jumped from ninth to seventh in this week’s RPI after sweeping its final regular-season series against ULM. The next-highest team in the Sun Belt is Arkansas State at No. 67, and Texas State at No. 98 is the only other Sun Belt squad to crack the top 100.
“We’re still going to have to play somebody every day, and you have to win against whoever you play,” Robichaux said. “We did play well (at Stanky Field) the previous weekend, so that helps. But if we don’t play well, everyone will bring up the past. It was a matter of the last few years us not getting the job done.”
That hasn’t been the case during the regular season. UL-Lafayette’s .875 winning percentage is the nation’s best by a wide margin, with top-ranked Oregon State the next highest at .820 (41-9), and the Cajuns have won six in a row and 10 of their past 11 to go with a nation’s-best 22-2 road record.
Regardless of what happens this week, the Cajuns will enter NCAA regionals with the nation’s best record. The only mystery is whether UL-Lafayette will earn one of the national seeds when the NCAA field is announced next Monday.