LAFAYETTE — Now that the regular season is over, Louisiana-Lafayette baseball coach Tony Robichaux is not necessarily pleased with his team’s third-place finish in the Sun Belt Conference.
But if you would’ve told him back at the beginning of the season that his team would be in contention for a title with two weekends left in the season before settling for third?
He probably would have taken that.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Robichaux said. “Not to be in third place — believe me — but to come back from what we lost all year, to grind this thing out all the way into (Saturday’s) rain delays, man, I’m proud of our guys.”
The Cajuns finished with a 34-20 record to go with an 18-11 mark in SBC play, which might have been good enough for a second-place finish had the final two games of the South Alabama/Troy series not been rained out.
It’s a 15-game drop in regular-season wins from last year’s record 58-10 team, but considering the talent, leadership and experience the team had to replace, it’s hard to look at it as anything but a success.
The Cajuns replaced their entire starting rotation and closer from last year’s team with, by the end of the season, a group entirely composed of freshmen.
Outside of All-American Blake Trahan and seniors Tyler Girouard and Dylan Butler, there weren’t many players in the everyday lineup with regular playing experience.
To go with that, the team also was breaking in two new coaches: hitting coach Jeremy Talbot and pitching coach Daniel Freeman.
Somehow, they made it work.
The pitching staff, while not perfect, was phenomenal down the stretch as the freshmen pitched — to borrow a Robichaux-ism — above their chronological age. Freshman Friday night starter Gunner Leger emerged as the ace of the young staff, and he enters the postseason having thrown 35 consecutive innings without issuing a walk.
Trahan and Girouard did exactly what was expected of them, if not more, by hitting .332 and .333, but contributions from some of the unknowns carried the team through some stretches.
Stefan Trosclair and Kyle Clement enjoyed the best statistical seasons for the Cajuns, which is made more impressive by the fact that neither started to get hot until the season was at least a month old.
Trosclair finished the regular season as the SBC’s leader in slugging percentage (.646) and as the second-most prolific home run hitter (13) despite the fact that he had just one homer as the calendar flipped to April.
Clement didn’t hit his first home run until April 11, and at that time he had a .250 batting average. He finished the season with eight homers and a team-best .348 batting average as he was batting out of the No. 2 spot.
The Cajuns may not have known exactly what they had coming into the season, but the future certainly looks more promising than it did at the beginning of the year.
It wasn’t always the most fun regular season. An inexperienced Cajuns team took its lumps from time to time, especially in a late-season swoon that momentarily tumbled them down the conference standings.
A couple of weeks ago, the Cajuns went into the Appalachian State series riding a wave of confidence that came with a seven-game winning streak. But they dropped two of three to a Mountaineers team that finished as the SBC’s worst, beginning a two-week stumble that saw them lose five of seven.
It’s virtually certain the Cajuns would have to win the tournament to advance to the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive season. They’ll get things started Wednesday in the third game of the opening day’s action in Troy, Alabama, with a 4 p.m. first pitch against Texas State.
But it appears the Cajuns have righted the ship with a sweep of in-state rival Louisiana-Monroe, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.