Cajuns softball coach Michael Lotief still working to find starting nine _lowres

Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Michael Lotief discusses a call with home plate umpire Mike Bartling during the fifth inning of their game against Baylor during the NCAA Softball Regional at Lamson Park Saturday May 16, 2015 , in Lafayette, LA. Brad Kemp/RaginCajuns.com

Louisiana-Lafayette’s softball team is less than one week from its season opener, and coach Michael Lotief still doesn’t have an idea about his starting lineup.

“I haven’t gotten to nine yet,” Lotief said Thursday. “I haven’t gotten nine hitters that I can rely on yet, that are prepared and ready to go. Six or seven we can run out there right now, but we still have to get more kids ready and at that level.”

That might be a surprising statement, since the Ragin’ Cajuns — coming off four straight NCAA Super Regional appearances and two straight Sun Belt Conference titles — have all eight position players returning from last year’s 42-12 squad.

Catcher Lexie Elkins, infielders Kelsey Vincent, Haley Hayden, DJ Sanders and Samantha Walsh, and outfielders Shellie Landry, Kelli Martinez and Aleah Craighton all started every one of last season’s 54 games. All hit .290 or better for a Cajuns squad that hit .346 as a team with a school-record and nation-leading 116 home runs

“This team has a lot of experience,” Lotief said. “It’s not only the returning starters, but you have a lot of solid pieces to the puzzle, players that have been consistent and productive at what they’ve done.

“It’s going to be a challenge over the next week or two to decide who’s going to get in there. And the right people have to stay healthy.”

Tough start

The 11th-ranked Cajuns open their season Friday, Feb. 12, at the Sand Dollar Classic in Gulf Shores, Ala. They will face Ball State and UAB on Friday, Southeast Missouri and Samford on Saturday and Louisiana Tech on Sunday in the round-robin tournament. UAB is getting votes in the preseason poll, and the five tournament opponents had a combined 149 wins last season.

UL-Lafayette will then face sixth-ranked Oregon three times and Central Arkansas once in the following weekend’s 30th Louisiana Classics Feb. 19-21 to open the home season. The early home schedule also includes Texas Tech and a three-game Sun Belt series with 25th-ranked South Alabama.

“With the high expectations, they’re going to be challenged some more,” Lotief said. “We all get into a trap of assuming that because somebody had a great season last year, automatically it’s going to happen again.”

The Sand Dollar event will mark the first time since 2013 and only the second time since 2008 that UL-Lafayette has opened a season away from home.

Elkins, Landry top 50

Elkins and Landry, both NFCA All-Americans in their junior seasons, are included in USA Softball’s 50-player “watch list” for its Player of the Year award. The list was announced Wednesday by the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) and USA Softball.

The list will be pared to the top 25 in April, to a top 10 in May and to the final three on May 25. The Player of the Year will be announced May 31 during the Women’s College World Series.

Elkins, a first-team NFCA All-American last year, was a top-25 pick last season when she led all collegiate softball levels with a school-record 32 home runs, which also tied for the second-highest single-season total in NCAA history. The two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year also led the nation in RBI (83) while hitting .426 and sporting a 1.077 slugging mark.

Landry, a hometown product of Broussard and St. Thomas More, was a second-team NFCA All-America pick last season after hitting .372 with 20 homers and 59 RBI, both second on the team to Elkins.

“Everybody knows about their productivity at the plate,” Lotief said, “but people don’t know how hard they work and how fiercely competitive they are.”

Lagniappe

The Cajuns will be familiar with one player on the Ball State squad in next Friday’s 3 p.m. opener. Sophomore infielder Julia Bailey, who started 46 games for the Cardinals as a freshman last season, is a former Teurlings Catholic standout and was a teammate of current UL-Lafayette freshman pitcher Summer Ellyson. ... Lotief, who battled physical problems throughout last season stemming from throat cancer in his collegiate days, takes a 638-159-1 (.800) record into his 14th season as head coach or co-head coach. Each of his teams have won at least 42 games and have made the NCAA tournament in each season. ... The Cajuns won 22 games by run-rule (leading by eight or more after five innings) last season.