LAFAYETTE — At the time, it seemed like a pretty good bargain for Louisiana-Lafayette baseball coach Tony Robichaux.
He’d already let his Ragin’ Cajuns players to grow beards after a brutal series of fall workouts, a radical change that caught many of his former players by surprise.
“We said as long as you keep them neat and trimmed you can have them,” Robichaux said this week during UL-Lafayette’s preparations for the NCAA super regional against Ole Miss.
That was before some of the players’ growths began to get long. They weren’t “Duck Dynasty” long, but before long second baseman Jace Conrad and several other players had a couple of inches of facial hair.
When Robichaux broached the issue, Conrad offered a deal, saying if the Cajuns lost back-to-back games the team would shave.
“Jace was pretty cocky about it,” Robichaux said. “He’s the team lawyer with a general studies degree, and he’s a deal-maker. So I said I’d take that deal. As a coach, why not take the deal?”
Now, UL-Lafayette is the nation’s only team not to have lost two straight games this season, and the Cajuns take that streak and their 57-8 record into their super regional opener at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“We made a pact in the beginning,” catcher Michael Strentz said. “If we lose two in a row, we have to shave the beards. We’ve lived up to it ever since.”
The relaxing of Robichaux’s no-facial-hair rule wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision, and one he’s still not fully on board with.
“We talked as a coaching staff and asked what everyone thought,” he said. “We did a lot of Navy SEAL training in the fall. We put them through everything you could put somebody through to try to make them break ranks, try to make them quit, try to make them walk out. We didn’t give them anything, we didn’t give them the beards or the right to grow them, they earned it.
“It’s amazing what they’ll play for. I still have to turn my head every once n a while. ... I’ve always believed this is college baseball and the clean-shaven part in my opinion is college baseball because we represent the university everywhere we go. But the season’s so long and it’s such a grind, you have to have something come up through the season to hold onto.”
Robichaux is now even sporting a slight growth on his chin.
“Jace said I needed to take a Sharpie to it because it’s too gray,” he said.
In addition to holding the nation’s best record and ranking as the only team not to lose twice in a row, UL-Lafayette is the country’s only team to win all of its weekend series this season. The Cajuns had eight sweeps and six 2-1 weekend-series advantages this season, and has now won 15 straight three-game series dating to the end of the 2013 season.
Robichaux said he and his team welcomes the return to the best-of-three super regional format, in contrast to last week’s four-team regional round.
“Your pitching’s a little easier to match up because you know your three guys,” he said. “It lets us stay true to what we’ve been doing all year and not have to figure out how to do things differently. You’re not scrambling to get so many scouting reports and matching up pitchers against teams because they may have lefties or righties. You have one team to worry about.”
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco is making his first appearance at UL-Lafayette’s M. L. “Tigue” Moore Field as coach of the Rebels. But he’s coached in the stadium before, and one notable game he coached came in NCAA tournament competition.
Bianco was McNeese State’s coach in 2000, and in his third year with the Cowboys led that team to a 39-18 regular-season record including a school-record 20 Southland Conference wins. MSU won its first league title in a dozen seasons and earned a No. 3 seed in the Lafayette regional where they met the host Cajuns in a first-round game.
The Cowboys led that game 5-1 late before rival UL-Lafayette rallied to take an 11-5 win. McNeese went 0-2 in the tournament, falling to fourth-seeded Marist 6-5 the next day. The Cajuns went on to win the regional with two wins over top-seeded East Carolina, and followed that with a super regional victory over South Carolina to earn its only trip to the College World Series.
The Lafayette super regional was officially announced as a sellout Thursday. Tickets never went on sale to the public because season ticket holders and contributors to the Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Foundation annual fund bought all available tickets by Wednesday’s 5 p.m. deadline.
The athletic department is erecting three 80-inch big-screen televisions outside the gates of Moore Field next to adjacent Cajun Field’s Gate A, and a 9-by-12-foot portable video board will be parked on Reinhardt Drive not far from Moore Field for tailgaters and fans that do not have tickets.
Those boards will be turned to super regional games across the country during the day for tailgating fans.