Cajuns bounce back to make title game _lowres

Advocate photo by Lee Celano -- UL-Lafayette's Haley Hayden slides into home plate during a Sun Belt tournament game against South Alabama on May 9, 2014.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Louisiana-Lafayette softball coach Mike Lotief has a habit of repeating himself.

Sitting before a room of reporters, he didn’t break that habit after Oklahoma knocked the Ragin’ Cajuns out of the Women’s College World Series on Saturday.

All week, Lotief said a roster packed with youth — 22 underclassmen in all — doesn’t guarantee or assure trips back to ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

“There’s an assumption because you have a young team you’re going to come back here over and over,” he said. “Wrong.”

There’s truth to that logic.

Who knows whether the roster will have the same chemistry? Or that its chief components will produce on the same scale they did this year? And there’s always the improvement of other teams that can’t be quantified.

Still, Lotief’s program brings back enough talent that expectations will be high: a 12th consecutive Sun Belt Conference title, another NCAA tournament trip and — if all goes well — a postseason run.

In the circle, rising senior Christina Hamilton (29-4, 1.56 ERA) is a reliable ace, and the rotation will have depth if senior-to-be Jordan Wallace (14-3, 4.04) finds the form that made her a first-team all-Sun Belt’s selection in 2013.

Leadoff hitter and second baseman Natalie Fernandez exits the picture, as does left fielder Shelbi Redfearn. But UL-Lafayette brings back six other position players, including rising junior catcher Lexie Elkins and her 24 home runs along with 74 RBIs. The heart of the order — Elkins, Haley Hayden and Samantha Walsh — also is slated to return.

Theoretically, an offense that hit .302 and smashed 90 home runs en route to averaging 6.4 runs per game could be humming. But Lotief didn’t want to deal in the theoretical.

“That group of kids is going to have to figure out how they form relationships together and is going to have to get some breaks,” he said. “It’s harder to repeat. That’s a tough journey because of the emotional energy these kids expend.”

That brings up the chief question facing the Cajuns: What can they take away from their two-game exit from Oklahoma City? What lessons — from mental preparation to practice habits — can be learned?

The lineup hit .140 (7-of-50) over two games. On the flip side, Hamilton did enough, allowing just four earned runs, that a timely hit or two may have extended the Cajuns’ stay.

“Eventually we’re going to sit there and think about it, but not in a negative way,” Hamilton said. “We went and put ourselves up on a stage, and we were shown what we needed to work on.”

Perhaps this season’s mindset will linger, too.

“I think of how mentally tough we are and the adversity we faced,” Elkins said. “It rubbed off on everybody. Everybody was there for each other, and we all had faith in each other.”