LAFAYETTE — Outside of a trip to Omaha, Nebraska, the best thing that could’ve happened to the Louisiana-Lafayette baseball team was its heart-stopping run to the NCAA super regional round.
It extended the Cajuns season past even the most optimistic expectations. They used a roster full of freshmen, junior college transfers and role players to become one of the last 16 teams standing.
That experience should prove invaluable as the Cajuns attempt to do the same thing in 2016, only this time on a lesser scale.
“This year helped us make next year relevant,” coach Tony Robichaux said. “If this would’ve been a rebuilding year, then it’s so much harder the following fall. Now they’ve made next fall relevant because they left standards that these guys have to live up to.
“That’s why the great programs are great programs. The standards are set to where they have to work to live up to those standards.”
Next year, the Cajuns will once again have to figure out how to replace more than half of their starting lineup. At the very least, seniors Tyler Girouard, Evan Powell, Greg Davis and Dylan Butler have exhausted their eligibility, and All-American shortstop Blake Trahan is as good as gone.
Of those players listed, only Trahan and Girouard finished the season batting better than .252, but their impact was felt beyond the batter’s box. It’s not quite the daunting task of replacing the seven players the major leagues swiped from the Cajuns in the 2014 draft, but it’ll still present the coaching staff with a puzzle to solve.
That’s why it was so critical for the Cajuns to enjoy the type of success they did in 2015. After running through the postseason, they now know not only how to get the job done, but that they’re capable of getting there despite losing a healthy contingent of their roster from the year before.
Things will be different this time, though.
The Cajuns return what figures to be a loaded rotation in 2016. Rising sophomores Gunner Leger, Wyatt Marks, Evan Guillory and Dylan Moore pitched beyond all expectations in their freshman seasons and should form a rock-solid foundation for the Cajuns to build on.
They should be joined by another talented group of incoming freshman arms. Left-hander Hogan Harris and right-hander Nick Lee headline a highly touted group of pitching signees, and if both make their way to campus, Robichaux will have amassed an impressive arsenal of college arms.
The offensive lineup is another story, as the Cajuns must find a way to not only replace their leadoff hitter and their most consistent left-handed bat, but a pair of their most critical defensive positions in shortstop and first base.
But the pieces are there. Should both Stefan Trosclair and Kyle Clement return, as expected, the Cajuns will have arguably the best one-two punch in the Sun Belt Conference. And judging by the way the program has churned out productive hitters in recent years, who is willing to argue the Cajuns aren’t going to find a way to develop some more prolific sluggers?
Plenty of challenges still lie ahead for the Cajuns.
It’s not going to be easy, maybe not even possible, to replicate the ability and leadership Trahan brought to the field every day. His talent and demeanor brought assurance to a young team.
The same can be said of those seniors who are no longer with the club. Remember, it was juniors like Trosclair and Clement whose hot streaks at the plate facilitated the run to the playoffs, but it was the seniors at the bottom of the lineup who did most of the offensive heavy lifting during the stretch run.
It was also their leadership, in Robichaux’s eyes, that got the team to believe they were capable of such a run in the first place.
Those players are going to be missed, for sure. But if anything, their legacy will carry on into the 2016 season, when the players on that team can draw from the experience that was the 2015 season to figure out what to do when the going inevitably gets tough.
Nothing is cemented in the college baseball world. The Cajuns won’t even officially know what they have to work with until the professional baseball signing period comes to a close in mid-July.
But the Cajuns are armed with the knowledge that anything is possible thanks to a season that lasted longer than anyone was expecting, and the confidence that comes with that run.