Ragin’ Cajuns begin softball regional the way they always do: strong up the middle _lowres

Advocate file photo by BRAD BOWIE -- UL-Lafayette's DJ Sanders could become 'the best all-around shortstop that has ever played here. ... (Her) upside is phenomenal,' coach Mike Lotief said. 'With her range, her arm and glove; she is really steady.'

LAFAYETTE — Although the Louisiana-Lafayette leads the nation with 98 home runs, many of the Cajuns’ meat-and-potatoes moments come when they are not at the plate.

As the Cajuns (43-7) prepare to host their NCAA regional at Lamson Park, including a 6 p.m. Friday meeting against Patriot League champion Boston University (28-22), catcher Lexie Elkins, shortstop DJ Sanders and center fielder Aleah Craighton stand in a three-way tie for the team lead with 17 homers apiece.

They also form the backbone of the Cajuns defense. Softball coaches and scouts often stress the importance of being strong up the middle — having a solid defensive core going from the catcher to the middle infielders to the center fielder.

While Elkins gained attention for hitting 32 homers last season, Cajuns coach Mike Lotief saves some superlatives for what Elkins does when the bats are out of reach.

“Lexie is the best defensive catcher I have been around,” Lotief said. “People talk about what Lexie does offensively, but what she does defensively is amazing. She receives the ball well, blocks it and controls the running game. She has a knowledge of hitters and game management.”

Sanders, a sophomore from Columbus, Mississippi, has the task of ranging up the middle or toward third to try and keep opposing slappers or other batters from getting a rally started with an infield hit. Sanders has eight errors, matching her error total from her freshman season.

“DJ continues to get better and better defensively,” Lotief said. “I think before that kid leaves here, she will be the best all-around shortstop that has ever played here. I know that is saying a lot knowing that Alana Addison and Nerissa Myers were here. DJ’s upside is phenomenal. With her range, her arm and glove; she is really steady.”

Craighton has covered territory in center and has trimmed her error total from three last season to zero this year. She also made the move from right field to center during her time with the Cajuns, which included a redshirt year.

Lotief said Craighton’s combo of size and speed is rare.

“She’s that big, strong, fast and has that good of an arm,” he said. “They call those kind of kids 5-tool players.”

UL-Lafayette’s first opponent, Boston University, struck out seven times in three games at the Patriot League tournament. As a team, the Terriers have nine homers; catcher Gabi Martinez leads the pack with four. It is not a squad filled with free swingers.

Elkins’ view of Sanders and Craighton as defenders is typically a straight-line situation from behind the plate. Missing a handful of weeks due to a thumb injury gave Elkins a different vantage point a bit removed from the field.

“I love seeing my teammates do well and we see it every day at practice,” Elkins said. “I’m glad they are getting the respect they deserve.”