Season of change for ULL softball team

Photo provided by ULL Sports InformationUniversity of Louisiana at Lafayette infielder Nerissa Myers.
Photo provided by ULL Sports InformationUniversity of Louisiana at Lafayette infielder Nerissa Myers.

Cajuns confident after losing key components in offseason

LAFAYETTE — Gone is a co-head coach whose University of Louisiana at Lafayette softball teams won 601 games in 12 seasons.

Departed is an All-American outfielder who hit 70 home runs in four seasons.

No longer with the Cajuns is a pitcher who won 91 games her collegiate career.

With all those losses, you might expect ULL softball coach Michael Lotief to greet the 2013 season with more than a bit of skepticism.

That’s not exactly the case, Lotief said of his team, which is ranked No. 11 in the preseason USA Today softball poll.

“No, the cupboard is not bare,” Lotief said. “In terms of names, we’re set to go. Now it’s about kids getting out there, finding what it’s all about, playing and getting to know (the coaching staff), too. It’s going to be a learning experience for us (coaches), also.”

For the first time in 12 seasons, the Cajuns are without Lotief’s wife and co-head coach, Stefni Lotief, who announced in July she was leaving the program in order to spend more time with her family.

During Stefni Lotief’s time with the program, ULL won 11 Sun Belt Conference regular season titles, and she was the league’s coach of the year seven times.

ULL is an unanimous selection once again to win the SBC after finishing 53-6 last year and advancing to a NCAA super regional at Arizona State.

Michael Lotief said his wife will act as a volunteer assistant, but she won’t have the daily imprint on a team that returns three-fourths of last year’s infield, a sophomore pitcher who won 27 games, a starting catcher and outfielder.

“Stefni was the heart and soul of this program,” Michael Lotief said. “It’s a huge loss. She brought a competitive fire, a calming influence, a sense of confidence, a keen eye for the game, saw every spin and made in-game adjustments.

“She may not be in close proximity, but (Stefni Lotief) will still be a presence,” he said.

The Cajuns are without slugger Christi Orgeron, who belted 22 homers last year, and veteran pitcher Ashley Brignac, who won over 80 percent of the ULL games she pitched.

Returning to ULL’s offense this year are shortstop Nerissa Myers (13 homers, .361 average, .728 slugging percentage) and third baseman Natalie Fernandez (.436).

Catcher Sarah Draheim (eight homers) is back, along with first baseman Matte Haack (.333, nine homers). The returning outfielder is Brianna Cherry (.352).

Myers said there is potential, despite the losses.

“Yes, we have a bunch of young athletes, but the young has nothing to do with potential. Their potential is great, so long as we communicate,” Myers said.

Fernandez, who played at Live Oak, said every program experiences personnel turnovers like the ones facing the Cajuns.

“That is what college ball is all about. People leave, and freshmen step up and sophomores can step up. That’s part of the game,” she said.

“I don’t think this team has question marks. We’re really confident about what we can do and what we can achieve. Our team’s mentality is we can do whatever we put our minds to,” Fernandez continued.

ULL opens the regular season against Lipscomb Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in the University of Houston’s Hilton Plaza Classic. The Cajuns play again that night against Iowa at 7 p.m.

Michael Lotief said the Cajuns’ offensive style will be different.

“Last year, we had a lot of balance in our offense and we were able to put a lot of pressure on our opponents. This season, it’s going to be a matter of our hitters understanding their roles and figuring out what each kid does best and then fitting it into our philosophy,“ Michael Lotief said.

Sophomore Jordan Wallace (27-2, 167 strikeouts, 186 innings), will be the key starter, along with Christina Hamilton, who was 11-2 in 2011. Hamilton missed last year with a knee injury.

During the offseason, the Cajuns acquired two transfer pitchers, left-hander Kristin Martinez, who played at Kansas, and Victoria Brown, who was at Arkansas in 2012.

“We have four competitors who know how to pitch. It’s going to be a matter of them feeling comfortable and learning our system over here,” Michael Lotief said.

Michael Lotief said he has a team with potential that must learn to synchronize its effort.

“Right now, we are a work in progress. I think we have some really strong individual pieces, but I think our focus is how well we’re going to perform as a group,” he said.