A stiff early test: Cajuns open Sun Belt softball play against South Alabama _lowres

Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK -- University of Louisiana at Lafayette Head Coach Michael Lotief talks with players Kassidy Zeringue, left, and Hayley Hayden (35) during a timeout in the first game of an NCAA softball doubleheader against Texas Tech Thursday, February 25, 2016, at Lamson Park in Lafayette, La.

LAFAYETTE — The No. 5-ranked Louisiana-Lafayette softball team will travel to face an opponent heading in the opposite direction this weekend.

The Cajuns (29-3, 10-1) enter Saturday’s game at Georgia State (19-19, 4-5) as the Sun Belt Conference front-runners and winners of six straight SBC games. After a seven-game win streak pushed their record to 18-12, the Panthers have lost seven of their last eight.

But, in a way, Georgia State is in luck: This weekend’s series will mark the second straight series the Cajuns will be without senior catcher Lexie Elkins, who broke her thumb before the Cajuns’ series against Texas State last week.

Elkins remains the national leader in home runs (17) entering the series.

“Everybody knows how good that kid is; we’re going to find a way to overcome,” said coach Mike Lotief. “We’re going to keep fighting. You’ve got to remain hopeful. It’s going to be OK.”

The bad news for Georgia State is that the Cajuns still have a stacked lineup without arguably the nation’s best hitter, with seven players hitting at or above .299. The Cajuns also bring in one of the stingiest pitching staffs in the country, led by right-hander Alex Stewart (15-1, 1.58).

For a team that is struggling to score runs, that really is bad news.

While losing seven of their past eight games, the Panthers have only scored 18 runs, and they’ve failed to score more than four runs in a single game in each of their last 10 games.

That trend will likely need to reverse against the Cajuns, who have only been held to four or fewer runs seven times in 32 games this season.

The Panthers are led in virtually every major offensive category by sophomore catcher Ivie Drake, and considering what she did last year, that’s not much of a surprise.

As a freshman, Drake set six single season offensive records, including the triple crown of batting average (.462), home runs (22) and RBIs (67) on her way to Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors.

She’s slowed a little bit off her freshman pace, batting .373 with nine homers and 24 RBI through 34 games this season, but she’s still a formidable presence at the top of the Panthers order.

Beyond Drake, Georgia State has a couple more players who can hit for average, but not a lot more pop.

Drake is the only player on the team with a slugging percentage greater than .500 — seven players in the Cajuns’ regular lineup slug better than .600 — and Drake has accounted for nearly half of Georgia State’s 21 homers.

The two teams will play a doubleheader Saturday before wrapping up the series Sunday at 11 a.m. The Cajuns have won 11 straight games against Georgia State, including the last five by run-rule.