LAFAYETTE — How big is this weekend’s softball series between Louisiana-Lafayette and Florida?
Using the NCAA’s RPI figures, the three games between the No. 1 Gators and No. 4 Ragin’ Cajuns are the season’s top nonconference series in all of college softball.
The Gators (38-3) are ranked No. 1 in both national polls, and the Ragin’ Cajuns (32-3) are fifth in both.
“If you’re a competitor, this is what you live for,” said Cajuns coach Michael Lotief, whose squad has won eight in a row. “If you want to get better, you want to play against really good teams, and we are doing that this weekend.”
The schedule includes a noon doubleheader Saturday and a noon single game Sunday. Host Florida is 12-3 and tops the Southeastern Conference; UL-Lafayette is 13-1 and leading the Sun Belt.
The series also offers the dream matchup of good pitching against good hitting. The Gators lead the NCAA in team ERA (0.85), and the Cajuns are the nation’s top home run-hitting squad (77). But Florida coach Tim Walton said those numbers don’t tell the entire story.
“Louisiana-Lafayette is the best home run-hitting team in the country, and that hides the fact that they are a top-10 team in terms of batting average and earned run average,” he said. “This will have the feel of an NCAA super regional.”
The Cajuns’ homer production could have been lessened by the absence of senior catcher Lexie Elkins — the national leader with 17 — amid a thumb injury that has sidelined her for the past two weeks and likely for at least two more. Elkins leads the country in batting average (.538) and was the top pick in the National Pro Fastpitch draft Thursday.
Strangely, UL-Lafayette’s home run production has increased with Elkins out of the lineup. The Cajuns hit seven in last weekend’s Sun Belt sweep of Georgia State. Shortstop D.J. Sanders had three, and outfielder Aleah Craighton had two; Craighton reached base in her final eight plate appearances.
Craighton (.386) has been a rare combination, slugging .891 (to rank second on the team to Elkins’ national-high 1.263) and posting the team’s second-best on-base percentage behind Elkins.
“Aleah’s done a tremendous job since Lexie’s injury of solidifying the four-hole and continuing to provide the power, getting on base and RBI production,” Lotief said. “She is really maturing as a hitter and does a great job of anchoring the defense in center field.”
The Cajuns’ .347 batting average will be tested by Florida’s pitching combination of Kelly Barnhill, Delanie Gourley and Aleshia Ocasio. Ocasio (0.45) and Gourley (0.78) rank first and third nationally in ERA; Barnhill is fourth in strikeouts (128).
But Florida can do a lot more than pitch. The Gators lead the nation in fielding percentage (.982) and are averaging six runs per game. Outfielder Amanda Lorenz is hitting .452 over the Gators’ past 10 games, and returning SEC Player of the Year Kelsey Stewart is the NCAA’s active leader in hits.
“Don’t think they just pitch and play defense,” Lotief said. “They can score. They can run-rule you in a hurry.”
That will challenge Cajuns hurlers Alex Stewart (17-1, 1.55 ERA) and Kylee Jo Trahan (10-2, 1.76 ERA). Stewart allowed only one run in 11 innings in the Georgia State series last weekend.
Florida has not beaten the Cajuns in four previous meetings. These games are the first between the teams since the 2008 Women’s College World Series, when Ashley Brignac scattered six hits and fanned 15 in an eight-inning 3-2 win for the Cajuns. Holly Tankersley’s solo homer in the eighth inning provided UL-Lafayette’s winning margin against the No. 1 Gators.
“I still have visions from that game,” Lotief said of the WCWS win. “I think that’s why Tim wanted us to come down and play. ... He probably has those same visions.”