LAFAYETTE — Four months ago, the questions surrounding UL-Lafayette’s perennially powerful softball team weren’t the typical ones — what teams were joining the Ragin’ Cajuns in an NCAA regional at Lamson Park, who was going to make All-America teams, and was there room in the trophy case for another Sun Belt Conference title.
Instead, there were questions and serious doubts as to whether the Cajuns would even field a competitive group.
“We lost half our team,” junior third baseman Kara Gremillion said. “We started with 35 and suddenly we’re down to 20. We were wondering if we were even going to have a team, were we going to have a coach?"
Gremillion made those comments Sunday, shortly after UL-Lafayette (38-14) was announced as the second-seeded team in this week’s Baton Rouge regional where they’ll face Houston at 3 p.m. Friday.
Things appeared nearly normal Sunday night at the team’s NCAA bracket announcement gathering. That wasn’t the case not that long ago, especially after a tumultuous October in which 15-year coach Michael Lotief was first suspended and two weeks later terminated amid allegations of verbal and physical assault on student-athletes and co-workers.
That firing and the surrounding controversy divided the players, many of whom remained loyal to Lotief and left the program. Of 34 players listed on the 2017 roster, only 13 remain on this year’s team that is making its 20th straight NCAA tournament appearance this weekend.
“I would have been really disappointed not to go to the NCAA tournament,” said coach Gerry Glasco, who was hired as head coach in late November. “I’ve never not been in and I don’t know what it would feel like, but I know it would feel terrible. But I would feel even worse for all these girls since they’re used to winning.
“Once we got into the season, there was never a doubt in my mind that we would be in, after the amount of work and dedication I saw them put in. I think they’ve already spoken volumes about themselves.”
Glasco came to UL-Lafayette after the conclusion of official fall practice and never got to see his new team on the field until January. His staff wasn’t finalized until late December, and by that time several key cogs had departed from the 2017 squad that finished 47-8 and won the Sun Belt with a league-record 23-1 mark before losing in the finals of the Baton Rouge regional. Before that, the Cajuns had advanced to five straight NCAA super regionals.
Among those who jumped ship were All-America shortstop and USA national team member D.J. Sanders, who transferred to Oregon, and All-American outfielder Aleah Craighton and anticipated No. 1 pitcher Alyssa Denham, both of whom transferred to Arizona. Five other starters either graduated or left the program, some of them among 12 roster players who departed with eligibility remaining.
Sanders, who led the nation in home runs last year, has started 53 of 54 games at shortstop for the Ducks, currently ranking second on the team in homers (16) and eighth in batting average (.291). Craighton has started all 54 games in the outfield for Arizona and is hitting .255, while Denham is 10-3 with a 1.70 ERA as the Wildcats’ number two pitcher.
The only starters from 2017 still around are Gremillion, catcher Lexie Comeaux and senior outfielder Kelli Martinez.
“This is obviously not a normal scenario for us,” Glasco said. “But it’s the one we got. No excuses.”
Despite the offseason issues, UL-Lafayette got off to a solid start with a 5-0 record in its season-opening Mardi Gras Classic. But it was the following week that Martinez said changed the team’s mindset, a week that included a win over Oregon State and a victory over then-No. 2 ranked Florida after two losses to the Gators. That 4-3 win was provided by an 11th-inning walk-off home run from freshman Casidy Chaumont, one of six newcomers in the batting order.
“It was a rocky start,” said Martinez, the only returning senior playing a key role. “It took a while to figure out we were actually good, we can actually do this. Oregon State was the turning point, that’s when we figured out we can hit, we can pass the bat, we can do all the stuff we need to do.”
“That was an awakening moment for us,” Gremillion said. “We were competing with all these great teams with what we had left. It was amazing. The coaches even started saying that this was a good team that has a lot of heart and a lot of fight and that we were going to find a way to win no matter who we play.”
Glasco said that Martinez was the key in the transition, saying her contribution to keeping the team together was much bigger than her 5-foot-1 frame.
“You talk about a leader, she is really the vocal leader on our team,” he said. “Her staying committed to us during the transition of the coaching staff, that was a huge benefit to our team.”
After the two losses to Florida, the Cajuns never lost two in a row again with the exception of an early April road doubleheader at Florida State. They extended a streak that now includes 46 consecutive Sun Belt series victories dating to March 2013, and rank 21st in both national polls entering Friday’s game against the Cougars.
Glasco said a testament to this team is their 19-8 record in games decided by two runs or less and a 7-3 record in extra inning games.
“They’ve won so many close games, and that’s when you know your team is a bunch of fighters,” he said. “To do all of that after what they’ve been through this year, that says so much about them.”
“Going to a regional is never a given,” said Martinez, who is hitting .299 and has zero errors this season. “You have to earn it, and that’s what makes this special. We’ve earned it this year.”
“I honestly think anything is possible for us,” Gremillion said. “The fact that we’re here and how much this team has shown, I think we can do anything we put our minds to after all we’ve been through.”
New faces, new places
A comparison of UL-Lafayette’s 2017 lineup and this year’s lineup that opens play in the Baton Rouge regional Friday:
2017 starter Status 2018 starter
Pitcher Alex Stewart graduated Summer Ellyson (Soph.)
Pitcher Alyssa Denham transferred to Arizona Casey Dixon (Fr.)
Catcher Lexie Comeaux returned Lexie Comeaux (Jr.)
First Base Corin Voinche graduated Kourtney Gremillion (Fr.)
Second Base Kassidy Zeringue graduated Casidy Chaumont (Fr.)
Shortstop D. J. Sanders transferred to Oregon Alyssa Dalton (Transfer)
Third Base Kara Gremillion returned Kara Gremillion (Jr.)
Outfield Haley Hayden graduated Kalyn Watts (Transfer)
Outfield Aleah Craighton transferred to Arizona Brittany Rodriguez (Transfer)
Outfield Kelli Martinez returned Kelli Martinez (Sr.)
Desig. Player Daniella Chavez left program Jolie Readeaux (Fr.)