LAFAYETTE — The biggest goal for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s softball program is consistency, and the Ragin’ Cajuns have attained taht throughout the program’s 35-year history.
UL-Lafayette averaged 48 wins per season over the past seven years, including last year’s 47-15 mark. The Cajuns made it to the NCAA super regionals for the second straight year and for the third time in four seasons, winning 29 of their last 33 games. That included a sweep of three regional games in Baton Rouge before losing two of three to seventh-ranked Michigan, both one-run losses, in the super regional.
Much of the nucleus of that unit is gone to graduation, and there is the possibility that, in Friday’s season openers against Northern Iowa and Texas in the Louisiana Classic Tournament, every position starter will be different from the one who finished last season.
“It’ll be a work in progress,” said coach Michael Lotief, entering his 12th season with a 547-137 career record. “I really like having a core group and riding them for three or four years. But that creates some growing pains when that core group is gone, and we’re going through that right now.”
The Cajuns have five position starters, including designated player Sara Corbello, who started at least 51 games last year. Corbello, second baseman Samantha Walsh and third baseman Natalie Fernandez — one of only two seniors on the 29-player roster — started all 62 games in 2013.
But the likely lineup for most of the weekend’s five Classic games will have Fernandez (.345) at second base and Walsh (.244) at shortstop, trying to fill the hole left by the departure of All-America shortstop Nerissa Myers.
“There’s opportunities for a new group right now,” said Lotief, whose team ranked eighth nationally in scoring and ninth in slugging percentage last season. “Sometimes you want to pull your hair out, and there’s frustrations on the part of the kids and the coaches, but it’s a necessary part of building championship teams.”
UL-Lafayette has its share of such teams. The Cajuns have been in the NCAA Tournament all but one of the past 24 years, with five Women’s College World Series appearances, and have been the Sun Belt Conference’s dominant program since that league began softball play in 2000.
But if those streaks continue and those numbers increase this spring, it will be with a very different cast of characters and perhaps the youngest team that Lotief has ever fielded. Fernandez, a three-year fixture at third base, and likely first-base starter Shelby Redfearn are the only seniors, and Lotief said that a lot of freshman and first-year performers will see action against a strong Louisiana Classic field this weekend.
The Cajuns take on Northern Iowa at 2 p.m . Friday and College World Series participant Texas at 4:30 p.m. at Lamson Park. Saturday, UL-Lafayette will face North Carolina at 2 p.m. and Texas again at 4:30 p.m. The Cajuns close the Classic against Northern Iowa at 11:30 a.m. Sunday.
The one steadying influence for UL-Lafayette is in the circle, where junior Jordan Wallace returns. The junior from Weatherford, Texas, last year’s Louisiana Pitcher of the Year, was only 10-6 at mid-March before winning 17 consecutive games on the way to a 32-9 record and a 1.70 ERA. Wallace was 27-2 with a 2.26 ERA as a freshman.
“She’s such a warrior, and she’s relentless,” Lotief said. “Her work ethic and the way she competes is phenomenal. She’s not a physically imposing pitcher ... her success comes from command and her ability to spin the ball. She really is a technician, and to do that, she has to work extremely hard.”
Junior Christina Hamilton (3-1), who was 11-2 as a freshman in 2011 before missing a season with a knee injury, and freshman right-handers Alex Stewart and Macey Smith make up the balance of the staff. Last year’s number two hurler, Victoria Brown, is expected to redshirt this year after recent surgery. Stewart has impressed Lotief and the staff in preseason workouts and will likely start out as the Cajuns’ No. 2 pitcher.
The Cajuns had five .300-plus hitters last year, but only Fernandez returns. That will put pressure on Corbello (.291) and outfielders Shellie Landry (.284) and Leandra Maly (.284), who will battle with freshmen Sarah Arceneaux of St. Thomas More and Haley Hayden of West Monroe for those spots. Sophomore Kelsey Vincent, who saw limited reserve action last year, is expected to take Fernandez’s spot at third base.
Sophomore Texas Tech transfer Lexie Elkins, who hit .282 with the Red Raiders last season after graduating from high school a semester early and making the immediate jump into college play, takes over for graduated team-leading hitter Sarah Draheim (.409) at catcher.
“The dynamics are a lot different this year,” Lotief said. “But the mental game and having mental toughness and making sure we don’t compromise our standard, that hasn’t changed.”