LAFAYETTE — Mike Lotief is barely audible above the echoing cacophony of his players plying their trade at the Louisiana-Lafayette indoor softball practice facility, his voice measured, his throat strained by infections and surgeries.
But he’s there, seated in the direct center of four very active batting cages, observing quietly as he’s brought cups of ice to soothe his throat. In this moment, it’s his presence and not his condition nor coaching ability that are important.
“Coaching is my passion,” Lotief said. “It’s what I do, it’s who I am. It’s not as much as me watching her swing the bat right here as much as it is my connection to her, to make a difference in her life as a person and growing and learning and fighting. All of those values.
“And her connection to me, she makes me better.”
In Lotief, the players see the courage to fight. Through them, Lotief is made stronger.
This season has been a challenge for the Cajuns softball coach. Not because of his team — it clobbered its way to a 39-9 record and was rewarded when it was selected as a regional host in the NCAA tournament. It’s because his health has not allowed him to always physically be there.
Most of the latter half of the 2015 campaign has been spent battling severe throat infections that led to pneumonia in his lungs. He watched the Texas State series via webcast from a hospital after undergoing surgery to fix the pneumonia, and hasn’t traveled with the team out of state since.
“Of course it’s hard not having your head coach there, for anybody, but especially us because we love him so much,” junior catcher Lexie Elkins said.
Love is at the core of it all. Finding out how the team and Lotief rose above his health problems is complicated, because life and relationships and love and adversity are complicated. This isn’t just about a softball team and its coach, this is a pilot and his team of co-pilots navigating the turbulence life always finds a way to present.
“You can’t look at this in a vacuum,” Lotief said. “If you want to make an analogy, you have to think about things in your own personal life.
“We’re living life together. Don’t think it’s just softball, we’re living life. Softball is just what brings us together.”
Togetherness is an important concept to Lotief, and so is the fight. He’s seen the heart-rending way things can go when those two concepts aren’t aligned.
“Part of the sadness of what I’m going through is when you go to M.D. Anderson and you see people dying and suffering and fighting — and they’re alone,” Lotief said.
So Lotief has insured himself against that. He’s never alone, whether it’s his team, his extended kin in the Cajuns community pouring in heartfelt support or his biological family at his side every step of the way.
Seated right behind Lotief at the indoor facility was his sister, Marie Vicknair, whom Lotief introduced as his personal nurse. Her presence, like Lotief’s to his team, provides strength. He’s asked if he can imagine going through this process without his family — a question accompanied by a wave toward the players in front of him.
“I know what you’re asking, but I don’t want to answer that way because it doesn’t acknowledge the contributions of my biological family,” Lotief said. “They’re my rock. My wife, my kids, my brother, my sisters.
“My family, they’ve been on this fight with me for 30-something years. They’re my strength.”
But, Lotief said, he has a commitment to honor as well. That is the commitment to the team to fight, a word that has a deep meaning to this particular team.
He looks at his team and ticks off the trials it’s been through together. Fifth-year senior Christina Hamilton endured a lost season because of an ACL injury. Shellie Landry persevered as her mother battled breast cancer. Kelsey Vincent’s father, Bobby, lost his fight to ALS a couple of years ago.
The personal ordeals are combated together because of a promise they make at the beginning of every season to claw and scratch their way through whatever hardship life or softball throws their way.
“When the game or life puts the struggle or adversity in front of you, and you’re committed to each other that you’re going to fight through it together, then you’ve got to do it,” Lotief said. “Because when you make that commitment, you don’t know what the adversity or struggle is going to be.
“They got my back, and they’re going to fight with me. I’m going to honor my commitment and I’m going to stay at it.”
Said Landry, “We have to stay strong for him, he’s going to stay strong for us and we’re going to fight together through it.”
Lotief will be in the dugout this weekend, which could be the final weekend at Lamson Park this season. If his team advances and has to face Auburn in the super regional, it’s unclear if Lotief would make the trip. If he can’t, it’s another hurdle to clear.
“Just trust everything we’re doing and come in as a team,” Vincent said. “No matter what, that team’s going to come out on top if you fight and believe.”
So Lotief and the Cajuns will continue the fight, because that’s what they know how to do.