HOUSTON — After the runaway success of the 2014 season, and the massive personnel losses following that dream campaign, few expected Louisiana-Lafayette’s baseball team to be back in postseason play.
Most expected the Ragin’ Cajuns to follow the path they were walking at midseason, when they were barely above the break-even mark and were languishing early in Sun Belt Conference play. At one point, UL-Lafayette was 1-4 against teams that didn’t even make the field for the Sun Belt Championships.
Less than two months later, the Cajuns are in the NCAA tournament for the third straight year, and one of the country’s hottest teams. Entering Friday’s 2:30 p.m. Houston regional opener against second-seeded Rice, the third-seeded Cajuns have won five in a row and eight of their last nine.
The squad’s only loss was a freakish 8-7 Sun Belt tournament opener against Texas State in a game they led 7-4 with two outs in the ninth inning. In the five games since then, the Cajuns have outscored their opponents 31-12.
“We needed to grow up,” said outfielder Evan Powell, one of five seniors who has played a pivotal role in the Cajuns’ run to a 39-21 mark and the Sun Belt tournament title. “We needed some younger guys to get roughed up a little bit, and they did. We had some guys get their lips bloodied a little bit, they got a slap in the face to wake them up a little bit, and they’ve gotten stronger.”
Those youngsters have gotten strong enough to win five straight elimination games in a 75-hour period and earn an unexpected NCAA trip four hours west on I-10. Now, they’re in a hometown-centered regional field in which the host Houston Cougars are the ranked favorite, Rice’s Owls are the traditional power and Houston Baptist’s Huskies are the party-crasher.
It’s also the position UL-Lafayette’s players expected to be in, despite the constant referrals to a “rebuilding” year, and it’s a regional in which they expect to do well after last week’s trial by fire.
“It’s kind of like us against the world,” said junior shortstop and leadoff hitter Blake Trahan, one of four Cajuns hitting .336 or better entering the regional. “We feel like we’re the hottest team in the nation, after coming through that losers’ bracket, so we’re ready to go. We told ourselves that we can go do this, just like we did last week.”
To do that, they’ll have to win at least three games, likely one or more against a host Cougars team that won the American Athletic Conference regular-season title — in the nation’s third-strongest conference according to the RPI — and was ranked in the top 10 for part of the season. Rice (35-20) is first up, though, and all the Owls did was win a Conference USA title for the 10th straight year and earn their 21st straight NCAA trip.
Houston and UL-Lafayette were both in the NCAA super regional round last year, while Rice made the super regionals one year earlier.
But Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux said his team’s opponent, both the Owls in Friday’s first round and whomever they face in a winners bracket or elimination game Saturday, isn’t their primary focus.
“It’s always more about ourselves,” said Robichaux, who teams with Rice boss Wayne Graham for a total of 2,108 collegiate victories (1,074 for Graham, 1,034 for Robichaux). “We’re our own biggest opponent. Our opponent gets on the bus with us. All another team does is test you, and (Rice is) going to test us just like South Alabama did. They tested us and we didn’t break.”
The Cajuns outlasted USA’s regular-season Sun Belt champions 5-1 in 12 innings on Sunday in the league title game to earn their NCAA slot. That was the fifth of those five straight tournament wins, and a freshman-heavy pitching staff had a major role in all five.
It will be one of two freshman right-handers, Evan Guillory (4-0, 4.08 ERA) or Wyatt Marks (6-1, 325) and not Gunner Leger to start the opener, despite Leger being the Cajuns’ Friday night starter in the second half of the season. Leger pitched eight strong innings in Sunday’s win over USA, and Robichaux will push him back to a Saturday or even a potential Sunday start.
“I was waiting to see if the conference tournament would spook them,” Robichaux said of the four freshmen who are a combined 19-8 with a 3.10 ERA. “It’s different now. It’s not a three-game series. If you have a hiccup, you’re going home. They didn’t get spooked too bad.”