LAFAYETTE — Ryan Leonards had a smoother transition from high school to college baseball than most prep players, mostly because he’s been coached at both levels by mirror images — literally.
The Louisiana-Lafayette senior played his entire career at Notre Dame High in Crowley, as well as summer American Legion ball, under coach Tim Robichaux. When he signed with the Ragin’ Cajuns, it was Tim’s twin brother Tony who took over tutelage.
And the Robichauxs aren’t just similar in appearance.
“They have the same approach in the way you play the game every day,” said Leonards, who has solidified the UL-Lafayette lineup with his play at third base this season. “They’re very similar. You pitch and play defense and you have a chance to win. I knew when I left Notre Dame that I was coming to a program with the same beliefs.”
It was watching Notre Dame games, with his brother coaching and son Austin Robichaux playing, that sold Tony Robichaux on Leonards.
“Coaches can tell you from watching kids, they either have it or they don’t, and it’s hard to explain what ‘it’ is,” the Cajuns coach said. “But they’ll say this kid is just a winner. Timmy would tell me how coachable he is, and talking to (Notre Dame football coach) Louie Cook — with him being his quarterback, Louie would tell me how he’d go in and handle the huddle and not be afraid to be a leader.”
It didn’t hurt that Leonards’ father Jeff was Tony Robichaux’s high school teammate. But even Robichaux didn’t realize how valuable the younger Leonards would be to his program until he took a closer look.
“He grew on me,” Robichaux said. “I’d go watch their games just because Timmy was coaching and sometimes when Austin was pitching or playing, and he wore on me as a winner. He was a guy that wasn’t running around and drinking and partying in high school, just the epitome of a quality person.”
As for Leonards, he sometimes thinks he’s been playing for the same coach for nearly a decade.
“There aren’t any big differences,” he said. “Coach Tim’s a little quieter, but you have to coach a different way in high school. Coach Robe’s the coach of a top-ranked team, so you have to be a little more vocal. But overall, they’re very similar in what they do. That’s what I’ve been living every day the past eight years.”
He’s had success over those eight years. During the 2009-10 academic year, he led Notre Dame to state championships as a quarterback in football and a shortstop/pitcher in baseball.
“Being a quarterback, you’re the leader, and everybody’s looking at you every play,” Leonards said. “And even if everybody does their job right, you can still throw an interception. So it’s kind of like hitting. You have to have a short memory. Your first at-bat, you may strike out, but if you can flush that and move on, you’re going to have success later in the game.”
Leonards was a regular contributor as a freshman and a nearly full-time starter as a sophomore, but in college, team success has come in the last two years. The Cajuns went 43-20 in his junior year in 2013 and reached the NCAA regional finals, and his squad is No. 1 in the country in this week’s Collegiate Baseball poll and second in the other four major polls. The 34-4 Cajuns also lead the Sun Belt Conference by four games entering this weekend’s series at UT-Arlington.
Tony Robichaux doesn’t hesitate in giving Leonards a share of the credit for that gaudy record. Leonards played all over the field for three years, starting 26 games at second base, 15 in left field, seven in center field and two as designated hitter last year. This year, though, he’s a fixture at third base in an infield with shortstop Blake Trahan, second baseman Jace Conrad and first baseman Chase Compton, and holds the third-highest fielding percentage among Sun Belt third basemen. He has easily the highest batting average (.344) among league third basemen.
“He lets everybody play where we wanted them to play,” Robichaux said. “When we signed him we asked if he had to play shortstop, and he said, ‘I’ll play wherever the team needs me.’ This year, you anticipate that if a guy’s played short before that he can handle third, but that’s not always the case.
“We wanted to take Shug (Tyler Girouard) off third to keep him as healthy as we could, and it just fit. Ryan’s been phenomenal there ... I really believe he was the final piece to that infield. We knew what BT (Trahan) was gonna do, what Jace was gonna do and what Compton was gonna do, but we didn’t know where we’d be at third. Was that going to be a work in progress, or could he (Leonards) really come in and handle it seamlessly?”
“Halfway through the fall, with Tyler having issues with his knee, they moved me to third just to see if I could do it,” Leonards said. “It really doesn’t matter to me, I just want to be on the field and be out there playing.”
Leonards already has more extra-base hits than any previous season, and after one home run in three years he’s got four this year. His batting average is also his career highest, as are his slugging and on-base marks, and he’s 14 of 15 on stolen bases as part of a lineup that has seven players hitting over .320 and nine with 20 or more RBIs.
“This is the best offensive team I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “Everybody can get the job done. Everybody can bunt or move the runners up, and everybody can hit it off the wall. If you come up with runners on and you move them up, you know the guy behind you’s going to get that hit.”