In many ways, Thursday’s opening game of UL-Lafayette’s Mardi Gras Classic softball tournament may be the most anticipated opening day in recent Ragin’ Cajun history.
It’s definitely the one carrying the most questions, after the fall semester turmoil that saw the ouster of longtime coach Michael Lotief amid allegations of verbal and physical assault, and the ensuing departure of three key performers.
Finally, though, new coach Gerry Glasco and his rebuilt Cajun team get to put all of the off-field issues behind them when they face Samford at 5 p.m. Thursday in the opening game of the six-team tournament.
“We’re ready to play and we need to play,” Glasco said Tuesday during his team’s first game-week practices. “We need to get out and play another team to see what it looks like against outside competition.”
The Cajuns, coming off a 47-8 season, a 10th straight trip to an NCAA regional final and their 15th Sun Belt Conference title in 17 years of league play, will play six games during the four-day tournament that also has Iowa, Evansville, Eastern Illinois and Illinois-Chicago in the field. The tournament kicks off a 15-game season-opening homestand for UL-Lafayette that also includes three games against second-ranked Florida next weekend.
These may be the first “real” games, but Glasco and his staff has done everything possible to simulate games and give the youngest Cajun team in recent memory as much experience as possible.
“We’ve had 12 full-length intrasquad scrimmages since we started in January,” he said. “We’ve tried to foster a culture of competition and let the kids compete. We didn’t know the players, so we kept the averages, the ERA’s, the stats, running that like a mini-season. Our practices have been very competitive.”
Those workouts have helped formulate a working lineup that includes three position players who started all 55 games last year — catcher Lexie Comeaux, who hit .333 with 10 homers last year, outfielder Kelli Martinez (.326) and third baseman Kara Gremillion (.320).
Other than part-time performer Beth Ashley (.257), the rest of the lineup will be sophomore transfers or freshmen. Glasco is high on Oklahoma transfer Alissa Dalton at shortstop and a freshman group that includes Aeriyl Mass, Casidy Chaumont, Jolie Readeaux and Kara’s younger sister Kourtney Gremillion at the other defensive slots.
“We’re going to have two lineups, one speed and one power,” Glasco said, “but I want our best nine hitters in there. The kids who are producing the best offensively will get the most looks.”
Bigger questions are in the circle. Senior Kylee Jo Trahan and sophomore Summer Ellyson had a combined three starts and 27 innings last season and are the most experienced pitchers. Glasco said that pitching would be a game-day decision, but freshmen Casey Dixon — last year’s Gatorade prep player of the year in Texas — and Carrie Boswell would both get opportunities in the opening tournament.
“We’re still looking at rotations,” he said, “trying to decide how we’re going to handle the four days. We may wait until the doubleheader days to bring out our older pitchers, so don’t be surprised to see a freshman start Thursday.”
Cajun Roster Breakdown
Lettermen Returning (8): C Lexie Comeaux, OF Kelli Martinez, 3B Kara Gremillion, OF Beth Ashley, IF Alaina Guarino, P Kylee Jo Trahan, P Summer Ellyson, P Alison Deville
Starters Returning (4): C Lexie Comeaux (Jr., .333, 10 HR, 48 RBI), LF Kelli Martinez (Sr., .326, 19 RBI), 3B Kara Gremillion (Jr., .320, 4 HR, 31 RBI), OF/DP Beth Ashley (So., .257, 3 HR, 20 RBI)
Starters Lost (5): SS D. J. Sanders (.388, 29 HR, 82 RBI, transferred), RF Haley Hayden (.382, 12 HR, 57 RBI, graduated), CF Aleah Craighton (.345, 18 HR, 53 RBI, transferred), 2B Kassidy Zeringue (.373, 11 RBI, 13 SB, graduated), DP Daniella Chavez (.271, 5 HR, 46 RBI, transferred)
Pitchers Returning (3): Kylee Jo Trahan (Sr., 0-0, 5.25), Summer Ellyson (So., 1-0, 3.15), Alison Deville (Jr., 0-0, 0.00)
Pitchers Lost (4): Alex Stewart (27-5, 1.81, graduated), Alyssa Denham (15-2, 2.27, transferred), Macey Smith (4-1, 1.33, graduated), Victoria Brown (0-0, 0.00, graduated)