LAFAYETTE — UL-Lafayette doesn’t need a lecture on what can happen in NCAA regional play.
Two years ago, the Ragin’ Cajuns were the nation’s top-ranked team in two polls, hosting a regional for only the second time in history at M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field and coming off the momentum of the first of what is now three straight Sun Belt Conference tournament titles.
So what happened? The Cajuns were unceremoniously dumped 1-0 by little-regarded Jackson State in their regional opener, and had to win four straight back-to-the-wall games to survive into the super regional round.
“At this point, everybody’s good,” coach Tony Robichaux said. “You’ve cut it down from 300-something teams to 64. I don’t believe there’s ever been an easy regional.”
Robichaux’s 30 years as a head coach, and 11 trips to regional play in 22 years with the Cajuns are enough to know that nobody gets taken lightly in the postseason. That’s especially true when he looks at a Princeton team that in many ways is a mirror image of the Cajuns.
“We’re well-balanced,” said Tiger coach Scott Bradley, a former New York Yankees teammate of Ragin’ Cajuns legend Ron Guidry. “We do just enough of everything ... we think we play pretty solid defense and we have pretty good pitching. In something like this, it all comes down to getting a hit when it’s needed.”
That description also applies to the No. 14 Cajuns (41-19), who face Princeton for the first time ever when they meet the Ivy League champion Tigers (24-19) in the first round of the Lafayette regional at 7 p.m. Friday.
UL-Lafayette rides a 10-game win streak into the regional, tied with future Sun Belt member Coastal Carolina for the nation’s longest, and claimed an automatic NCAA bid by winning the Sun Belt tourney Sunday. The Cajuns had already locked up a fourth straight NCAA berth with their season-long performance and are 9-3 in the regional round over the past three years.
In those four years, UL-Lafayette joins LSU, Vanderbilt and Louisville as the only teams nationally to win 40 games in each season, a standard due in part to that postseason success.
“This is the time that you want to be playing well,” second baseman Stefan Trosclair said. “Coach says all the time that you have to win in a lot of different ways. Our pitching and defense carried us through the season, but when we started hitting and clicking on all aspects, we can be dangerous.”
But that doesn’t mean the Tigers are awed. Quite the opposite, said Princeton starting pitcher and junior right-hander Chad Powers (6-3, 2.07).
“All our guys are excited to be here,” said Powers, the Ivy League Pitcher of the Year and the only unanimous pick on the All-Ivy League team. “We didn’t want to play a team where we had to score a huge number of runs. We wanted to play a team like us that wins with pitching and defense.
“We know they’re going to hit if you make mistakes, so we have to keep the ball down and hope they get themselves out.”
The Tigers have already made this a storybook season, winning the Ivy League’s Gehrig Division and beating Yale in the best-of-three league championship series. They became the fifth team in Ivy history to win that series after losing the first game.
One year ago, Princeton was a 7-32. Only one Division I team, Coppin State, won fewer games than the Tigers last season.
“You ask these guys and they’ll tell you it wasn’t a bad season,” Bradley said. “The success we’ve had this year started on the backs of losing those games. Now these guys are enjoying the moment.”
They’re also enjoying the weather, despite the shaky forecasts. The Tigers have played only the three games in the Ivy championship series since May 1, and have been battling finals over the last two weeks.
“We’ve been playing in 40-degree weather,” Powers said. “Down here, you can loosen up.”
Powers will face a Cajuns lineup that is hitting .311 in the 10-game win streak including 36 extra-base hits. In those 10 games, seven regulars are hitting .324 or better, led by DH Brenn Conrad (.394) and center fielder Kyle Clement (.375), the team leader for the season at .355. UL-Lafayette scored 33 runs and hit .321 in four Sun Belt tournament wins, with catcher and tournament Outstanding Player Nick Thurman collecting six RBI and six runs scored.
Freshman right-hander Nick Lee (7-1, 3.18) will start for the Cajuns in the opener, with sophomore left-hander Gunner Leger (6-3, 2.08) getting the call in Saturday’s second game against either Arizona or Sam Houston State.
Lee will face a Tigers lineup led by All-Ivy first-team picks Zack Belski at first base, Danny Hoy at second, Billy Arendt at third and freshman and team leading hitter Jesper Horsted (.326) in the outfield. All four are hitting .293 or higher against right-handed pitching this season.
That lineup may also include senior catcher Andrew Christie (.234), son of New Jersey governor and former presidential candidate Chris Christie, but freshman and Singapore native Max West has caught Powers much of the season.