Louisiana-Lafayette and Jackson State are meeting in an NCAA baseball regional for the second consecutive season, but under different circumstances.
Last year they were on equal footing, having lost their first games in the Baton Rouge regional as they met in an elimination game.
This year, UL-Lafayette is the consensus No. 1 team in the country and a national seed as it prepares to play the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament champion Tigers in the first round of the Lafayette regional at 6 p.m. Friday at Moore Field. Second-seeded Mississippi State and third-seeded San Diego State meet in the regional opener at 1 p.m.
The Ragin’ Cajuns ended the Tigers’ 2013 season with a 15-1 win, but JSU still made an impression of UL-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux. The Tigers took an early 2-0 lead on top-seeded LSU and eventually succumbed 11-7 in the opener.
Despite the lopsided final score against UL-Lafayette, JSU led 1-0 after four innings before the Cajuns started hitting and scored 10 runs in the final two innings to make the score lopsided.
“Only a fool underestimates his opponent. We’re not going to do that,” Robichaux said. “We have respect for everybody in this thing. Last year those guys played LSU tough, they played us tough.
“They’re athletic, they got hot at the end, and when people get hot at the end they’re a dangerous team.”
The Tigers got into the tournament by upsetting Southwestern Athletic Conference regular-season champion Alabama State in the conference tournament final.
“The 64 people that are in here, they didn’t win a lottery ticket to get in here, they’re in here because they do something good,” Robichaux said, “so we’re going to have to be good.”
UL-Lafayette has been very good all season as it won the Sun Belt Conference regular-season title by seven games and swept to the conference tournament title. The Cajuns’ 53-7 record represents the most wins in the country, and their 10-game win streak is the longest in the country.
“Fifty wins is an outstanding year,” JSU coach Omar Johnson said. “I hope one day I’m in that situation. A lot of things had to go right for that to happen. You had to recruit the right players, you have to prepare them and they have to perform every night. To do that, they’ve had everything working for them all year.”
The Cajuns will start junior right-hander Austin Robichaux (7-2, 3.01 ERA) just as they did against the Tigers last season. Robichaux spaced out nine hits to allow just one run in eight innings.
“Last year those guys swung the bats real well,” Robichaux said. “We were fortunate that Austin pitched a very good game against them to be able to advance in that regional.”
Robichaux missed a few starts in April because of tendonitis and has been on a pitch count to get him ready for the postseason.
“This is why we were careful,” the elder Robichaux said. “We didn’t want any lingering effects when it got real. His last two starts have been good. He hit 100 pitches in one and 94 in the other one, thrown well, velocity is good, feels good.”
Johnson opted not to go with his No. 1 starter, senior right-hander Desmond Russell, who gave up 12 hits and nine runs in 7.2 innings against the Cajuns last year. Instead he’ll start sophomore left-hander Vincent Anthonia (3-0, 3.41).
The Cajuns have been pointing toward this opportunity pretty much since they exited Alex Box Stadium after a 5-1 loss to top-seeded LSU that left them 2-2 in the Baton Rouge regional.
“This year we set similar goals and upped the stakes a little bit,” outfielder Seth Harrison said. “The goals were to get to 50 wins and get a conference championship and host a regional.
“We’ve been blessed to knock three of those off, and now we’re preparing for the fourth one.”
Dan McDonald contributed to this report.