Johnson: Somewhere along the way, the Ragin’ Cajuns decided they weren’t in a rebuilding mood _lowres

RaginCajuns.com photo by BRAD KEMP -- Louisiana-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux is congratulated by volunteer coach Daniel Freeman after he reached his 1,000th victory by defeating Alabama 6-5 at Hoover Met Stadium on Feb. 28.

HOUSTON — It’s late May, the Cajuns are in Houston for an NCAA regional, and this wasn’t supposed to happen.

Tony Robichaux and the few dozen players he took to Houston were supposed to be starting their vacations right about now, booking trips to beach destinations or summer getaways to northern ballparks, imagining new and interesting ways to fill their suddenly barren schedules.

This was a rebuilding year, remember?

It’s one of the dirtiest phrases in sports — the rebuilding year. The entire object of the game is to prove your team to be better cohesive unit than the one across from you. But considering the situation the Cajuns found themselves in, rebuilding seemed to be a logical if not necessary consolation.

There is no such thing as sustaining success for a mid-major program that lost virtually its entire pitching staff and three-quarters of its starting lineup from a 58-win team to graduation and the Major League Baseball draft. Two assistant coaches also turned the Cajuns’ success into opportunity and left for other schools.

Flip to the beginning of the season and take stock of what the Cajuns brought back. They had a legitimate star in Blake Trahan, and Tyler Girouard gave them a big boost when he decided to return. But other than those two, the Cajuns featured a roster largely composed of first-year players and guys that had been role players on talented teams.

The Cajuns were supposed to show flashes of potential but ultimately fail to mask the fact they were replacing all those bearded future pros with guys who don’t need razors. This year was going to provide crucial experience for when the shelves were stocked again.

To have expected a return trip to the postseason would’ve been lunacy. And yet, here we are. Go figure, the crazy Cajuns expected the unexpected.

Somewhere between the draft that ransacked their roster and the start of the 2015 season, the band of believers proclaiming 2015 to be the Year of the Rebuild lost an important group of people; the players on the 2015 roster.

No, they said; this will not be a rebuilding year.

Robichaux shared a fun story while his team was making its run through the SBC tournament. Well, at least it was fun to share in hindsight, but it might not have been fun when it actually happened — if it actually happened.

“We almost had some fights in the fall with some young freshmen,” Robichaux said. “(Senior utility man Evan) Powell one day had one by the neck and told him, ‘This is not a rebuilding year.’ ”

Life and baseball aren’t so simple as to boil down success to the power of declaration, though. The fall may have marked the point when the team decided it wasn’t going to simply get through the 2015 season as a bridge to the future, but action was required to make that declaration a fact.

The team knew it was going to have to rely on players who had never been on the college baseball stage before. It was up to the players who had been there before to get them ready for that stage.

“It was a rough fall trying to get that over to them — that we need y’all to hurry up and come on, take the baby bottle out of your mouth, cut the umbilical cord. It’s already been cut once, don’t reattach it, and let’s go,” Robichaux said. “That’s not easy to do with freshmen, but we’ve been very fortunate because I think the senior leadership is so good.”

Not only the senior leadership of players like Girouard and Greg Davis, but juniors like Trahan, who has been so steady on the field and as the face of the program, and Nick Thurman, who has deftly managed a young pitching staff that has found so much success.

The Cajuns had their share of struggles. They tried at times to capture the lightning that was there for the 2014 team, and at times they were burned by those attempts. They lost several one and two-run games when they either couldn’t find a big hit or they made, to borrow an oft-used Robichauxism, “a critical error at a critical time.”

They had to figure out how to win their way, and they were bound and determined to do so because they decided back in the fall that this wasn’t going to be the rebuilding year everybody expected out of them.

The action followed. The freshmen matured rapidly under the leadership’s wing; role players like Kyle Clement and Stefan Trosclair developed into studs; the burgeoning confidence manifested into the belief that this was a championship-caliber team.

They’re in Houston, their season still alive, and that’s more than anybody thought they’d be capable of. Now comes the next trick — continuing to shock everybody and keep this thing going.

But this time, nobody needs to leave hand imprints on a freshman’s throat. Nobody needs to be convinced that the Cajuns aren’t in rebuilding mode anymore.