LAFAYETTE — Another day, another home run hero for Louisiana-Lafayette’s softball team.
This time, it was senior Shelbi Redfearn’s turn, as the Ragin’ Cajun left fielder laced a three-run homer in the sixth inning, powering the top-seeded hosts to a 4-1 victory over South Alabama in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship game.
The 12th-ranked Cajuns (44-8-1), capturing their 12th Sun Belt tournament title in the 15-year history of the event, earned the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament with that field announced at 9 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU. UL-Lafayette is also expected to be named as a regional host and could earn one of the top eight national seeds when the brackets are released, with the Cajuns entering the week sixth in the NCAA’s RPI listings.
Redfearn made that possible when she lifted USA pitcher Farish Beard’s final pitch over the left-field wall with nobody out in the sixth, scoring Samantha Walsh and Shellie Landry ahead of her to break a 1-1 tie.
“Before I went up, I had three or four people in the dugout telling me that I could do it,” Redfearn said just before her 13th homer of the season. “We had struggled early in the game, and a couple of innings before we had talked about adjustments that we needed to make.”
Beard (21-6), who had struck out 13 in the Jaguars’ opening-round win over UL-Monroe, retired 11 in a row between the second and fifth innings before Walsh and Landry led off the sixth with first-pitch singles. Cajuns coach Michael Lotief had just shifted to the third-base coaches box after spending the first five innings in the first-base box.
“I don’t think that had anything to do with it,” Lotief said. “But at that point in the game, I thought that was our shot to score. I just walked over there ... I didn’t even think about it.”
Redfearn, one of only two seniors on the UL-Lafayette squad, had gone three-for-four in the Cajuns’ 4-2 loss to USA in Friday’s winners bracket final. But on Saturday, she struck out against Beard in her first two at-bats.
“Shelbi had a great first game against them,” Lotief said. “She had some great at-bats earlier in the game ... she was swinging like the Shelbi of old. At that point, the game was setting her up for that moment.”
Beard entered the game with a 1.04 ERA, ranking fifth nationally, but had been hit hard by UL-Lafayette in their regular-season 6-2 Cajuns win. In that game, she gave up three homers and six earned runs in four innings, and came into Saturday’s game with a 10.50 career ERA against the Cajun squad.
USA’s Hannah Campbell, last year’s Sun Belt Pitcher of the Year, split the other two games with UL-Lafayette in the regular season and was the winner in Friday’s game when she allowed one earned run.
“We believe in both of our pitchers,” said USA coach Becky Clark, who guided the Jaguars to the last two Sun Belt tournament titles. “Both have pitched in big games, and Farish deserved and earned this start. She was the person I wanted on the mound for this game.”
Redfearn’s homer made a winner of Christina Hamilton (24-2), who suffered Friday’s loss on two late USA home runs. Hamilton was touched for one run in the first inning and also retired 10 in a row in the middle innings, after throwing 92 pitches in the Friday game.
“I knew if I had the opportunity to take the ball, I was going to give it my best shot,” said Hamilton, who had won 20 straight decisions dating to late February before Friday’s loss. “I wasn’t up to par today ... I felt shaky at the start, and I had to bear down and stay with it.”
“We debated on our pitcher until midnight last night,” Lotief said. “We wanted to see how she felt and what she looked like warming up. She was ready to gut it out.”
“The big thing about her is she’s a competitor,” Clark said of Hamilton. “She gets on the mound and competes. She didn’t give up the big hit, yesterday we got the big hits and today we didn’t.”
The Cajuns, the visiting team in the title game, took a 1-0 lead on the second at-bat of the game when freshman outfielder Haley Hayden hit a 1-1 pitch over the left-center wall at Lamson Park for her 12th homer of the year. The Cajuns left the bases loaded in the first and left two stranded in the second before Beard found her rhythm.
The second-seeded Jaguars tied it quickly on back-to-back two-out doubles by Blair Johnson and Chloe Rathburn, and USA also had two runners on base in the second when Natalie Fernandez turned an infield grounder into a double play.
The Jaguars threatened in the sixth and appeared to score a run that cut it to 4-2, but Kaitlyn Griffith was called out for leaving third base too soon on Amanda Minahan’s fly ball.
The teams then waited through an hour-long rain delay in the seventh, and the Jaguars again got the tying run to the plate on Alex Breeden’s leadoff double and Julie Moss’ single before Hamilton got the final two outs, including a strikeout of Stephanie Pilkington to end the game.
The Cajuns have never been a top-eight national seed since the NCAA tournament format was changed to add the Super Regional round.
“I don’t know,” Lotief said when asked if his team deserved a national seed. “If you look at the RPI it says we should be a top-eight seed. Our kids beat some really good teams. There’s lots of good teams in this country, and we have a very good team. We’ve done our body of work and laid it out there for them.”