Ragin’ Cajuns catcher Lexie Elkins heating up toward the end of the season (again) _lowres

Advocate file photo by LEE CELANO -- UL-Lafayette catcher Lexie Elkins connects for a home run last season. Elkins, who batted .426 with 32 homers and 83 RBIs last year, is the preseason Sun Belt Player of the Year.

LAFAYETTE — The University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s softball team was a near-unanimous selection as the Sun Belt Conference favorite in a poll released by the conference Tuesday, and it was clear why when looking at the preseason all-conference lineup.

Lexie Elkins, the NCAA’s home-run champ from a year ago and two-time SBC Player of the Year, was tabbed as the preseason Player of the Year, and she was joined by four of her teammates on the 15-player preseason all-conference team.

Alongside Elkins on the preseason all-league team are first baseman Kelsey Vincent, second baseman Haley Hayden, shortstop D.J. Sanders and outfielder Shellie Landry. As a team, the Cajuns garnered eight of a possible nine first-place votes to finish eight points ahead of rival South Alabama in the projected team standings.

“Our players and fans understand that awards and honors are not given based on a preseason vote, they are earned on the field through hard work and even some ups and downs,” Cajuns coach Mike Lotief said. “… We know other teams will give us their best shot and we will be pushed and exposed, week in and week out. We are excited and ready for the challenge.”

It came as no shock to see Elkins earn the preseason Player of the Year nod. She hit 32 homers and drove in 83 runs last year while hitting a team-best .426.

In two years with the Cajuns, Elkins has hit 56 home runs and accounted for 157 RBIs. She is the Cajuns’ all-time leader in career batting average (.405) and is 28 homers shy of setting a school record.

But she’ll have plenty of help. The Cajuns return eight of their top nine position players from a team that hit 116 home runs while batting .346 a year ago.

Hayden (.379, 14 home runs) and Landry (.372, 20 homers) formed a potent duo setting the table for Elkins at the top of the order last season, while Vincent (18 home runs) added some thunder to the bottom half of the lineup.

Sanders was a freshman last season and had the lowest batting average of any Cajuns regular at .290, but she stole 10 bases and displayed a slick glove at a critical position. She committed fewer errors than any other SBC shortstop last season.

South Alabama was the next-best-represented team, with three players on the preseason all conference team.

Texas State’s Randi Rupp was named the preseason Pitcher of the Year after going 24-14 while striking out 293 batters in 249.1 innings last year.

Cajuns No. 11

The Cajuns closed last season ranked No. 11 nationally, and that’s where they’ll begin in 2016.

Both the USA Today/NFCA and ESPN.com/USA Softball top 25 polls were released Tuesday, and both of them featured the Cajuns at No. 11.

“It’s always an honor to be recognized by your peers as one of the best programs in the country,” Lotief said. “… This team has great potential and many solid pieces. But we are still a work in progress and have to keep improving day by day and face every struggle and adversity with solutions.”

The Cajuns open the season with the Sand Dollar Classic tournament Feb. 12-14 in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Their home opener will come Feb. 19 at the Louisiana Classics tournament.