Immediately before last season, UL-Lafayette’s baseball squad averaged almost 47 wins in a stellar four-year stretch that included a No. 1 national ranking, four straight NCAA regional appearances and two berths in the super regionals.
That last NCAA outing, when the Cajuns hosted the regionals but were upset by Arizona at the end of the 2016 season, seems much longer ago – mostly because the Cajuns' roster then and now look nothing alike.
UL-Lafayette has only two position players who saw frequent action still around from that season’s 43-win team, and the Cajuns go into Friday’s season opener fielding their youngest and least-experienced lineup since the start of that run of success.
The Cajuns likely will start two true freshmen on the left side of the infield and two brand-new faces elsewhere in the lineup for opening night at Texas’ Disch-Falk Field. Tony Robichaux, entering his 32nd season as a head coach and his 24th at UL-Lafayette, knows his team is going to have some growing pains, and not just in this weekend’s three-game series.
“We can try to prepare these young guys as much as we want, but they ultimately need game experience and crowd experience,” he said. “Some of them come from high schools where they had 100 people in the stands, and a lot of that was grandmother and grandfather and their mom and dad. Now you’ve got a guy drinking and cursing at them. It’s a little different animal now, and we have to see if they can handle that.”
Robichaux’s hopes of major improvement from last year’s final 35-21-1 mark, and advancing further than last year’s first-round loss in the Sun Belt Conference tournament, took a preseason hit when returning league Pitcher of the Year Gunner Leger (10-2, 1.97) had two fall surgeries and will redshirt before his senior season.
Even with Leger’s absence, starting pitching should not be an issue. Left-hander Hogan Harris and right-hander Nick Lee are a combined 20-7 in the past two seasons, lefty Colten Schmidt is back in the ranks of the healthy and righty Jack Burk has impressed the Cajuns staff in the preseason. In fact, Burk (2-4, 2.45) will get the ball for the Friday opener against Texas, with Lee going Saturday and Harris on Sunday.
The end-game bullpen is also solid with the return of a healthy Dylan Moore, the Sun Belt’s all-time saves leader — he's recently been accepted into the Texas law school, meaning he’ll likely pitch against his future school over the weekend. But middle relief is a question that Robichaux wants answered in a hurry.
“We feel good about our starters,” he said. “It’s the guys in the middle that’s where the growth is going to have to come from. They’re going to gain some tough experience early. They’ll definitely get weathered.”
Weathering will also happen in the lineup, where versatile Kennon Fontenot (.270), infielder Hunter Kasuls (.229) and catcher Handsome Monica (.215) are the only familiar faces.
Returnees Todd Lott (.266) and Zach LaFleur (.292) and newcomer Gavin Bourgeois figure to man the outfield, while true freshmen Hayden Cantrelle, son of former Cajuns standout Kevin Cantrelle, and Jonathan Windham are the likely regulars at shortstop and third base. Robichaux sees parallels between Cantrelle and Blake Trahan, who started at shortstop as a freshman and stayed there three years before being drafted.
“BT (Trahan) played above his chronological age,” Robichaux said. “Cantrelle’s been able to do that same thing. Everyone who comes into college baseball says the game’s really, really fast and it takes time to slow the game down. Cantrelle’s been able to come in and play the game slow from the get-go.”