On paper, Louisiana-Lafayette softball coach Michael Lotief is dealing with an embarrassment of riches.
Seven of nine lineup regulars return from last spring’s Women’s College World Series team, including the top two homer and RBI producers. Every player that threw a pitch during that 49-10-1 season, one punctuated by unbeaten romps past Texas and Arizona in the NCAA regional and super regional rounds, ireturns.
And one of his new faces, freshman infielder DJ Sanders, was just named to USA Softball’s Junior National Team.
Expectations are high. Unfortunately, so is the number of Cajun regulars that may not be ready for the season-opening Louisiana Classic tournament Feb. 6-8.
Injuries have left five stalwarts — pitchers Jordan Wallace and Christina Hamilton, catcher Lexie Elkins and left-side infielders Corin Voinche and Samantha Walsh — as huge question marks. Most are dealing with various types of arm and shoulder injuries only three weeks before those opening games.
“We’ve got to get healthy,” Lotief said. “That’s our biggest challenge right now. We’ve got a lot of kids on the roster back, but we haven’t done enough together to build any chemistry.”
Rebuilding the lineup was a big concern entering the 2014 campaign, and the team had an atypical 8-5-1 start. After that, though, the Cajuns won 21 of their next 22 games and 34 of their next 36 including series wins over nationally ranked Oklahoma and South Alabama.
Only second baseman Natalie Fernandez and left fielder Shelbi Redfearn are missing from that lineup. In fact, the other 19 players who saw action last season return.
Things don’t look as rosy, though, when two pitchers who went 29-4 and 14-3, the returning Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, an 11-home-run producer at third base and the returning shortstop starter are all on the shelf. There’s a possibility that all may be limited for the season opener, and some for several weeks thereafter.
“We won’t know for a couple of weeks,” Lotief said. “But if we have to wait until May, we will. We want them for the postseason. ... It’s not as important for them to play in three weeks.
“If we have to play a lot of young kids and then fight to win the conference and get in (postseason), that’s what we’ll do. It’s better to be smart and let it happen on its own down the road.”
The Cajuns rarely had to fight last season in the Sun Belt, going 19-1, and much of that success was due to Hamilton. The senior right-hander lived up to the promise of her freshman year, going 29-4 with a 1.56 ERA and winning 20 straight games at one point. Two of her four losses came at the World Series.
Wallace struggled with control in her junior year after two record-setting seasons, walking more than one batter per inning.
“She was still 14-3,” Lotief said. “That’s not the end of the world. She’s older and hopefully learned from that and can grow from that experience. Her stuff was never an issue and she had more control with her secondary pitches, it was more dealing with expectations and that’s not the easiest thing to do.”
That staff was aided by the nation’s 10th-highest run production. Elkins ranked second nationally with 24 homers while hitting .388.
Elbow problems may limit Elkins to designated player duties early, and that’s not the only change up the middle. Outfielder Haley Hayden, a surprise with 15 homers and a .332 average as a freshman, moves from center field to second base next to Sanders, who figures to be the opening-day starter at shortstop in Voinche’s absence.
“We needed someone to do it,” Hayden said of the move to the infield. “I played a little infield last year and a lot when I was younger, so it’s like getting back to home. We still have time, a couple of weeks, for all of us to get prepared.”
The moves hit hard up the middle, where UL-Lafayette has been consistently solid.
“You’ve got to be strong on the spine,” Lotief said, “and we haven’t developed any consistency there yet. On the corners we’re strong. ... Those kids have done a great job at those positions.”
Walsh (.267, 11 HR) figures to return at third base opposite Kelsey Vincent (.256, 7 HR) at first base, and Shellie Landry (.287, 5 HR) returns in right field. The rest of the lineup may not be known until Opening Day.
“We’ll have to start making some decisions soon,” Lotief said. “Whoever gets called, everyone has to get their skill set better. We can’t have that noticeable dropoff we had at the bottom of the lineup last year. ... We have to be able to put pressure on good pitchers throughout our lineup.”
UL-Lafayette’s softball team will open its season with three straight home tournaments. Those events, dates and teams participating:
29th Louisiana Classics
North Carolina State, Central Arkansas, Eastern Illinois
Mardi Gras Classic
Idaho State, Mississippi Valley State
Ragin’ Cajun Invitational
Iowa, Hofstra, Missouri State, McNeese State