LAFAYETTE — When Natalie Fernandez surveyed the preseason roster and realized most of her Louisiana-Lafayette softball teammates were freshman and sophomores, she saw no reason for concern.
Although some might have questioned the wisdom of Fernandez’s opinion at that point, her feelings would have been validated with the Cajuns’ regular and postseason performances.
A UL-Lafayette team with six freshman or sophomore starters is a top seed in the NCAA Regional Softball Tournament the Cajuns host beginning Friday at Lamson Park.
The tournament also includes No. 2 seed Texas (33-21), No. 3 Mississippi State (38-19) and No. 4 Texas Southern (31-18).
UL-Lafayette plays Southwest Atlantic Conference Tournament champion TSU on Friday, following the tournament’s 3 p.m. opener between Texas and MSU.
Second-round games continue Saturday when the winners of Friday’s games play at noon, followed by the first-round losers’ contest.
A final second-day game, which eliminates a second team, is set 6 p.m. Saturday.
The championship round is set for noon Sunday, with a second game to follow if necessary.
Fernandez said she’s not amazed UL-Lafayette enters the tournament 44-18-1 overall and the winner of a Sun Belt Conference regular season and tournament championships.
Looking back at the situation in January, Fernandez said she had little doubt a team with only her and outfielder Shelbi Redfearn as seniors, would have advanced this far in postseason.
“We knew from (the beginning) that we were going to be a young team,” said Fernandez, who has a team leading .437 batting average. “That’s what people were going to label us, a young team, but we weren’t going to use that as an excuse or let it affect us.”
What those outside the team didn’t see, Fernandez said, was the hard work the young players were willing to put in in order to reach the NCAA tournament for the 24th time in school history.
Fernandez said although she was assigned to oversee the players’ development, her younger teammates were instead leading her at times.
“I’m not the one who’s always getting on base, but when I do, the only way I come in is when one of those freshmen or sophomores do it from lower in the lineup,” said Fernandez, the leadoff hitter.
While the Cajuns are the No. 1 seed and have the most wins of any team in the tournament, Fernandez said UL-Lafayette has a difficult task ahead if Lamson Park becomes a super regional site next weekend.
Texas defeated the Cajuns twice in February and UL-Lafayette is 2-10 in previous games against the Longhorns.
“Texas Southern is a conference champion and Mississippi State has played some tough competition from the Southeastern Conference,” Fernandez said.
The Cajuns have 79 home runs this season. Sophomore catcher Lexie Elkins, the SBC Player of the Year, has 18, freshman Haley Hayden 15 and Redfearn has 13. The team is batting .301.
UL-Lafayette’s ace pitcher is junior Christina Hamilton (24-2, 1.55 ERA, 166 strikeouts, 48 walks). Victoria Brown, a sophomore, has developed lately (6-1, 33 strikeouts, 12 walks in 42.2 innings)
The x-factor in the circle for the Cajuns is junior Jordan Wallace, whose ERA has inflated to 3.91. Wallace, who didn’t pitch in the conference tournament, is 14-3 and has walked 107 and struck out 136 in 102 innings.
The Tigers are making their first NCAA appearance after winning a SWAC title.
That experience isn’t lost on TSU coach Worley Barker.
“This has been an unbelievable ride for us thus far. We couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity we have to compete in the NCAA softball tournament,” Barker said in a story posted on the school’s athletic website.
The Tigers have a team ERA of 3.83, however. TSU has used six pitchers, including Madison Staton (11-6, 48 strikeouts, 48 walks in 84 innings). TSU’s other top pitcher is Jeniece Tillman (14-11).
TSU also has four hitters with averages over .400. The top power hitters are Thomasina Garza (.408, 8 home runs 52 RBIs) and Krystalina Yockman (.392, 8 homers).
The Longhorns make their 15th NCAA appearance and feature left-handed pitcher Tiarra Davis, the Big 12 Freshman of The Year.
Davis (18-12) has 162 strikeouts and 90 bases on balls. The other Texas pitcher is Gabby Smith (13-4), who has a 2.76 ERA.
Longhorns shortstop Taylor Thom is the conference player of the year, while outfielder Brejae Washington is the team’s leading hitter (.427).
Thom and Washington have combined for 56 stolen bases.
Texas’ power in the lineup includes Lindsey Stephens, who has 15 homers and 62 RBIs.
It’s the third straight NCAA tourney appearance for the Bulldogs, who received an at-large bid into the tournament.
MSU’s schedule included 10 teams that qualified for the NCAA tournament.
The Bulldogs feature a left-right combination within the circle. Left-hander Alexis Silkwood is 13-7, while right-hander Alison Owen is 18-11. The pair have a collective 366 strikeouts. Owen has the more inflated ERA (3.00).
Infielder Caroline Seitz is the team’s leading hitter (.358, 36 RBI. 8 homers). Owens is batting .333, while infielder Julia Echols is hitting .317.
Although MSU is hitting .259 as a team, the Bulldogs have 238 RBIs.
Infielder-catcher Logan Foulks has 33 RBI, while catcher Sam Lenahan has 10 homers and 42 RBIs.