Florida was supposed to be 6-0 at this point in the softball season; the second-ranked Gators return a virtually intact lineup and two of the nation’s best pitchers off a national runner-up squad.
Not too many expected UL-Lafayette, a program mired in turmoil during the fall and having to replace most of its regulars and all its front-line pitchers, to have that same record.
But that’s where they both stand going into what is suddenly a big softball weekend at UL-Lafayette’s Lamson Park, with the two nationally ranked teams playing a 3 p.m. Saturday doubleheader and a single game at 1 p.m. Sunday. The series is a return for the Cajuns’ trip to Gainesville in 2016.
“In the SEC we start early in the season, and scheduling can be a challenge,” said Florida coach Tim Walton, who led the Gators to national titles in 2014 and 2015 and reached the Women’s College World Series final last year. “But I do like to go and play in unique locations before conference starts.”
Walton’s team returns seven of eight position players along with returning national player of the year Kelly Barnhill and Aleshia Ocasio as perhaps the nation’s best 1-2 pitching combination. Barnhill (2-0, 0.00) threw a no-hitter at North Florida on Wednesday and has 21 strikeouts in 14 innings.
The Gators have outscored their opponents 51-3 and have five shutouts in six games, and they have yet to commit an error. Their only close game was a 2-0 win over 18th-ranked Michigan in last weekend’s season-opening tournament at South Florida.
It makes for the toughest of challenges for the host Cajuns and first-year coach Gerry Glasco, who got the UL-Lafayette job in mid-November. But his 16th-ranked team swept five games in its own Mardi Gras Classic last weekend, and then took a 9-4 Thursday win over a 5-1 Oregon State team that had already beaten two nationally ranked teams.
“We had to win one game this week for sure,” Glasco said Friday. “We might have gotten nervous if we hadn’t won that one. Now we’ll just have some fun and try to compete our tails off against Florida. It’s going to be a weekend where we grow as a team no matter what happens.”
The Cajuns lost all three games in Gainesville two years ago. Before that, the teams hadn’t met since the opening round of the 2008 World Series when UL-Lafayette took a 3-2 win — in Walton’s first WCWS game.
Senior Kylie Jo Trahan and sophomore Summer Ellyson figure to get the nods in the circle Saturday. Trahan (3-0, 0.40) is the reigning Sun Belt Conference Pitcher of the Week, while Ellyson (2-0, 4.10) had a 20-strikeout game against Evansville last Saturday.
Ellyson got the start and Trahan threw the last 2⅔ innings in Thursday’s win over the Beavers.
“They did exactly what we wanted them to do,” Glasco said. “Summer gave us four really good innings.”
The Cajuns are hitting .372 entering the weekend and have outscored opponents 48-17 — and 10 of those runs against came in one game in a 14-10 nine-inning win over Eastern Illinois.
“We’re learning how to win in a lot of different ways,” said Glasco, who is very familiar with the Florida program after nine years as an assistant at three different SEC schools. “We’re going to go out this weekend and play like we have nothing to lose.”