LAFAYETTE — When a late lifeline was needed, the late bloomer stood ready and waiting.
As Texas A&M was looking for two more outs Sunday to force a winner-take-all game in the NCAA softball Lafayette regional, Louisiana-Lafayette sophomore shortstop DJ Sanders was lurking on deck. Aleah Craighton doubled to bring the tying run to the plate in an 8-6 contest. That gave Sanders the opening she needed.
“You don’t want to pitch to DJ in the seventh (inning),” Cajuns coach Mike Lotief said. “She did it against Georgia State. She would have like the worst at-bats, and she lulls the other team into this sense of complacency. Then they start looking beyond her ... and bam! She squares it.”
The most recent bam possibly made a mark on a tree beyond the center field fence at Lamson Park. It also pulled the Cajuns into a tie on a two-run homer before they sealed their trip to the super regional.
Sanders’ overall play has improved quickly after she got a late start in some respects as primarily a slow-pitch softball player at New Hope High School in Columbus, Mississippi. That led to a fast-paced freshman year when Sanders hit .290 with four homers and 27 RBIs.
“I don’t even know what my mindset was last year,” Sanders said with a laugh. “I was freaking out so much that I wasn’t able to fully play.”
Then came some time to evaluate things and pick up tips from various sources. Last summer, Sanders was a member of the U.S. Junior Women’s national team which had opportunities to play in the World Cup of Softball and the Junior Women’s World Championship.
“That gave me a lot of confidence because I never really traveled (before),” Sanders said. “I played travel ball with my team, but I didn’t really get out from being around that area much. So I didn’t really know what it was like to play at a high level.
“I didn’t think that I could (play at that level) for a long time. But I think playing with them kind of gave me that confidence that I could play with some of the best players in the country.”
Even with that boost, there is still much to be learned each day. As Lotief lists Sanders’ general skills — being able to see good pitches, power and hand-eye coordination as a great tools — he follows that by immediately saying, “and she still doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
But there have been baby steps in that direction. Many times the movement forward happens in a two-hour span during a few trips to the plate.
“It’s just learning from previous at-bats,” Sanders said. “If I get out early in the game because of something I did mechanics-wise, I can fix that later in the game.”
That seventh-inning homer against Texas A&M helped guarantee Sanders a couple of things: The chance to keep learning and the chance to take a trip to Oklahoma with her teammates.
“I feel like we have a really good bond,” Sanders said. “It’s never a hassle or a job to be out here. It’s always fun with these girls, and we have one goal in mind. I don’t want to say the road has been easy, but it has been enjoyable and fun to be out there.”