UL-Lafayette baseball coach Tony Robichaux has been through the final preparations for an upcoming college baseball season many times over the past three decades.
But while that prepares him to predict some things about this year’s Ragin’ Cajuns squad heading their season opener against the Texas Longhorns at Russo Park at 6:30 p.m. Friday, his experience tells him some things just can’t be known ahead of time, no matter how much you prepare.
“The biggest thing about opening day (is), it’s who you’re playing against, and then to be able to throttle down to where they need to be at, because what they want to do on opening day is to throttle up,” Robichaux said. “That’s just not a good thing. Baseball is played at a certain speed, and when you get out over your skis, it’s not good.”
Naturally, Robichaux is most concerned about the many first-time Division I performers the Cajuns will count on, especially in the early going.
By the time I showed up on the scene at Louisiana-Lafayette's Tigue Moore Field, it was only four years removed from the big game.
“We try to put them in the best simulated situations we can put them in, but they still need this last piece,” Robichaux said. “We can talk about it all we want, about how Friday night is going to feel — but until he gets out there this Friday, he’s not comprehending it the way we’re telling him because he hadn’t felt it yet. That’s the part we’re going to have to walk through.”
All week long, UL’s staff has been holding specific scrimmages at specific times to get players ready for this weekend’s schedule, which also includes games at 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.
“We’ve been pumping in crowd noise the last couple of days so they’re ears can hear a crowd,” Robichaux said. “Just make sure they just play baseball and not get too throttled up — especially the freshmen. The older guys can handle it, but these freshmen, it’ll be the first time they see a crowd wrapped around them like that.”
The next big obstacle Robichaux hopes his Cajuns can leap this weekend is handling a historic program like Texas. The Longhorns are ranked No. 16 nationally in the USA Today coaches poll.
UL junior Justin Miller, who had a game-high 13 rebounds in Friday's 76-72 win over Georgia State, said the team won the game for coach Bob Marlin and his coaching staff.
“One, they’re a very good baseball team,” he said. “They’re well-coached with good athletes. We always worry about us more than the other team, but we do respect our opponent. We do know that taking on someone like that early in the year is not going to be easy, but it’s going to be good. It’s going to weather us, weather our young pitchers.
“We’ll have challenges. One, with our younger pitchers, and two, just trying to make sure that you play baseball, not play against their history.”
Perhaps the veterans on the club can give UL’s younger players a quick history lesson if playing the Longhorns adds more nerves to the situation. While Texas leads the all-time series 31-7, Robichaux is 4-3 against the Longhorns during his 25-year tenure with the Cajuns, including a 2-1 win in last year’s series finale in Austin.
One veteran expected to provide some early stability is fifth-year senior Gunner Leger, the team's Friday night starter. He’s expected to be followed by junior college transfer Brandon Young. Robichaux has not yet named a Sunday starter.
Texas, meanwhile, is scheduled to start right-hander Bryce Elder on Friday, followed by righty Blair Henley on Saturday and true freshman Coy Cobb in the finale.
Henley was 6-7 last season with a 3.32 ERA, giving up 94 hits, 37 walks and striking out 64 in 86⅔ innings.
Elder was 6-1 with a 5.55 ERA, yielding 40 hits, walking 18 and striking out 31 in 35⅔ innings.
“You have to get out and play to see what the issues are,” Robichaux said. “In the fall, you think you know what the issues are.”
But sometimes the game throws you a curveball. Especially on opening weekends.