East: Ragin’ Cajuns set for ‘opportunity of lifetime’ _lowres

Advocate photo by LEE CELANO -- UL-Lafayette's Michael Strentz rounds third base after hitting a home run against UL-Monroe earlier this month.

Louisiana-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux pondered the journey his record-setting team is about to embark on.

The Ragin’ Cajuns begin the most promising NCAA tournament appearance in school history when they host Jackson State on Friday night in the Lafayette regional.

“Our private work,” Robichaux said, “is just now starting to become public.”

UL-Lafayette has arrived on the national scene and is poised to stick around awhile.

All that private work began very nearly a year ago when the Cajuns endured a string a disappointments. They finished one game out of first place in the Sun Belt Conference regular season and lost in the conference tournament title game at home.

Ultimately they came up short in the Baton Rouge regional, dropping their opener, then winning two games before being ousted by top-seeded LSU.

“Last year, we didn’t finish,” Robichaux said. “This year is all about finishing.”

So far, so good.

The Cajuns polished off the Sun Belt opposition with plenty to spare in the regular season, finishing seven games ahead of second-place UT-Arlington. They went 4-for-4 in the Sun Belt tournament, edging UTA 4-3 in the title game Sunday.

UL-Lafayette is the consensus No. 1 team in the country, its 53-7 record shows it has eight more wins than any other team in the country and its 10-game win streak is the longest in the country.

The Cajuns put themselves in the national consciousness 14 years ago when they reached the College World Series for the first time. Robichaux has guided a very successful program throughout his 20-year tenure, but the Cajuns haven’t gotten back to Omaha, Neb.

“We’ve been wanting to go back every year. We just feel we have a group of guys that believe they can,” he said. “There are some teams that utter the word Omaha and there are some teams that believe they can really get there, and this team really believes they can get there. Will it be easy? No, it will not, but we have the style that we need to get there.”

UL-Lafayette’s “style” is an ability to win in any manner that a given game demands. Most importantly, it can pitch and play defense, having three good starters and a deep bullpen as well as the top fielding team in the Sun Belt.

If the pitching or defense is off, the Cajuns can knock the ball out of the ballpark and win a slugfest.

In addition, the Cajuns can nickel and dime a team to death, as they showed in the Sun Belt tournament. Singles, stolen bases, bunts, base running and timely hitting produced a lot of runs in less-than-spectacular fashion.

“Throughout the season, we’ve had to win many different ways,” Robichaux said. “It’s a team that believes in themselves, and they trust in each other. You’ve got to learn how to win all kinds of ways. That’s what I like about this team, they can win a number of different ways.”

Though UL-Lafayette’s No. 6 national seeding doesn’t match its standing in the polls, the Cajuns have put themselves in as good a position as any college baseball team can find itself in as it tries to reach the CWS.

They won’t have to leave Moore Field in order to earn another trip to Omaha.

Robichaux called it “the opportunity of a lifetime.”