MOBILE, Ala. — Aleah Craighton’s Louisiana-Lafayette teammates couldn’t wait another couple of hours, because the moment was too perfect.
The Ragin’ Cajuns hoisted Craighton, who turns 21 on Sunday — the day after she played a large role in clinching a Sun Belt tournament championship — up onto their shoulders and serenaded her with a boisterous rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
“I kind of knew they were going to do that,” Craighton said. “I didn’t know they were going to pick me up, though.”
Really, it was Craighton who picked up her teammates Saturday. She had what amounted to a pair of decisive hits in the Cajuns’ 12-0, five-inning win against Texas State.
Even though little-used Macey Smith (3-0) threw a no-hitter, relieving starter Alex Stewart after Stewart had faced just one batter, it was Craighton who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding player. And it was one swing that felt inevitable that earned her that recognition.
The Cajuns (43-7) had been building steam throughout the fourth inning. Five of the first six batters reached base to start the inning, and the Cajuns were leading 6-0 with the bases loaded and the meat of their order coming to the plate against Texas State (39-20).
“You think it’s coming,” coach Mike Lotief said. “I thought it was coming with Lexie (Elkins). (Texas State pitcher Paige Williams) has to challenge them, bases loaded.”
Elkins, the powerful slugger, fouled off numerous pitches before picking up an infield single that made it 7-0.
Next up was Kelsey Vincent, who homered both Friday and Saturday.
“I sensed it with Kelsey,” Lotief said. “She swung right through it.”
Vincent’s strikeout put Craighton at the plate with two outs, the bases still loaded. She was looking for a pinch on the inner half of the plate
“I was just looking for a pitch I could hit hard,” she said.
She got what she was looking for on the third pitch of the at-bat, and she got all of it.
Williams hung her head almost immediately after Craighton made contact. Texas State left fielder Kimberlin Naivar took a few steps back and then gave up. Craighton’s grand slam cleared the wall by a good margin, landing in the patio set up beyond the left-field fence.
The slam gave the Cajuns an 11-0 lead, enough to end the game by run rule after the top half of the fifth. For good measure, D.J. Sanders crushed her 17th home run of the year right after Craighton’s slam, providing the final score.
As much as the outcome wasn’t in doubt in the fourth, the game got off to a bit of a shaky start for the Cajuns. Stewart only threw five pitches — two of which were deemed illegal by the umpiring crew. Lotief knew immediately he would not be able to roll with Stewart, who this week was named the conference Pitcher of the Year.
“My mind said to start Macey,” Lotief said. “Alex wanted a shot. I was going to see how the umpires were going to interpret the rule. There was no doubt in my mind. When they called (an illegal pitch on) the first pitch, I was going to change right there.”
Smith worked out of her only serious jam in the first inning, getting a big fist pump from Lotief when she stranded a pair in scoring position with a weak groundout. Then the Cajuns offense, led by Craighton, got into gear.
She cracked a two-out, two-run triple to start the scoring in the first, hitting a sinking liner to left that got past a diving Naivar. Lotief waved her home, but Craighton was gunned down on a nice play by shortstop Ariel Ortiz, who ran all the way out to the wall to start the relay home.
The Cajuns added three more in the third on a Shellie Landry RBI double and Vincent’s second home run of the tournament.
With the win, the Cajuns clinched the Sun Belt’s automatic bid for the NCAA tournament, though they had done plenty to merit an at-large selection without the tournament win.
Even so, the Cajuns, celebrating with Craighton on their shoulders, were obviously enjoying being Sun Belt champions again.
“You get a label now,” Lotief said. “You get to say, ‘We’re champions.’ In my mind, the older I get, I don’t need the labels. I’ve been believing in this group and singing their praises the whole year.
“Now that they get the label and other people get to see them the way I’ve seen them the whole year? That’s a good thing. Because the perception now is a reality.”