LAFAYETTE — The determination and resiliency of the Louisiana-Lafayette softball team was ever-present in Sunday’s regional final against Texas A&M in Lamson Park.
From Alex Stewart pitching all nine innings, striking out 10 batters on 176 pitches, to DJ Sanders’ tying home run in the seventh inning and Aleah Craighton’s winning homer in the ninth, the Ragin’ Cajuns every gave every ounce of everything they had to offer for their 9-8 win in an extra-innings thriller.
“Win, lose or draw, to go through an experience like that in your life, it will impact these women for the rest of their lives,” Cajuns coach Michael Lotief said. “What an incredible experience.”
The Cajuns advanced to their fifth super regional in as many seasons, and they’ll match up with No. 3 seed Oklahoma. The teams will meet Thursday and Friday in Norman, Oklahoma; the first game is 8 p.m. Thursday (ESPN2). Friday’s matchups are 6 p.m. (ESPN2) and, if necessary, approximately 9 p.m. (ESPNU).
The Aggies hit the ball hard all day to the tune of 13 hits. They held an 8-6 lead in the seventh before Sanders tied it with a two-run blast. Craighton then launched a solo shot in the ninth for the winning run.
Despite Stewart not having her best stuff Sunday, she said watching her teammates battle and have her back willed her to finish.
“I was fighting for my teammates, and they were fighting for me,” Stewart said.
“It’s a lot about the mindset and not letting it faze you. It’s all about winning the next pitch, and I was just playing free.”
Stewart said she wasn’t concerned with any chatter about her recent struggles with illegal pitches. She showed a lot of emotion in the circle Sunday — something she said she decided to do before the game.
“I told myself this week that I have bring back the emotion,” she said. “The emotion (that Texas A&M) brought helped us. I just know we worked hard, and I wasn’t thinking about any of that.”
Lotief said in the event of a win-or-go-home game, he was using Stewart again.
“I know y’all think I am full of bull, but she was going throw until her arm came off,” he said. “I wasn’t worried about how hard they were hitting her. This was a game that was going to be decided by the big hit.”
The Cajuns hit four home runs, including Lexie Elkins’ first since returning from a thumb injury and a moonshot in the third from Sara Corbello that put the Cajuns up 5-2.
“That is our M.O.,” Lotief said. “That is the way we played all year. In my mind and their minds, we just kept swinging and hacking. That is one thing we have to understand: If we finally go down, it’s because we don’t get the home runs. And everyone will say, ‘Why you didn’t get the home run?’ But today, we are moving on because that is how we play. That is how these kids play and compete.”
Texas A&M’s Cali Lanphear put a charge into one in the bottom of the ninth that Aggies coach Joe Evans said she was “willing to go over,” but it fell short and into Kelli Martinez’s glove. Lotief said it was no coincidence that two of the three best home run-hitting teams in the country played a game like that.
“It was back and forth, back and forth,” he said. “I wasn’t going make a change and even when we got down, save for the ‘if’ game. If there was going to be an ‘if’ game, I was going to get in my car and check myself in. In my judgment, there was no ‘if’ game. That was the ‘it.’ ”