To win the Baton Rouge Regional and continue its season beyond this weekend, the Louisiana-Lafayette softball team will almost certainly have to deal with No. 9 national seed LSU along the way.
But before the Ragin’ Cajuns can think about a matchup with their longtime rival, they must first handle business in Friday’s opener against Southland Conference champion Northwestern State.
Northwestern (40-13) joins LSU (40-13) and ULL (43-13) to give the regional three teams with 40 or more wins.
“We have the utmost respect for coach (Donald) Pickett and his team,” ULL coach Michael Lotief said. “We know it’s going to be a war (Friday) night, and that’s where our focus is right now.”
ULL meets Northwestern at 3 p.m. to begin the first day, followed by LSU’s matchup with Central Connecticut State (35-13) at 6 p.m.
The Cajuns arrive in Baton Rouge with a No. 21 ranking in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll, and they have the best RPI in the country (No. 17) of any team not hosting a regional.
Their track record in regionals hosted by LSU makes them an even scarier opponent.
The Cajuns closed the old Tiger Park by winning a regional there in 2008, then returned in 2010 and won the first regional LSU hosted in its new ballpark across campus. Both times, ULL fans showed up in full force. But Lotief downplayed the success past ULL teams have had 60 miles from home.
“It’s a brand-new year,” Lotief said. “What happened in the past has no bearing on what happens this weekend. The game will hopefully be decided by these players and who executes the best.”
Even though ULL lost before reaching the Sun Belt Conference tournament final, the Cajuns have been on a roll since staggering to an 18-11 start and losing four of their first six conference games.
They won 22 straight games to finish the regular season and added one more win in their first game of the Sun Belt tournament.
A lot has changed since early in the season.
One thing going ULL’s way is star shortstop Nerissa Myers is back in the lineup after missing part of the year with an ankle injury. Another is sophomore pitcher Jordan Wallace is on track after experiencing early struggles.
All the while, the Cajuns needed some time to regroup after losing several veteran stars from last year’s team, which went 46-3 in the regular season and advanced to super regionals. Now they’re back in the postseason for the 15th year in a row.
The Cajuns come into the weekend with a .330 team batting average and four players who have driven in 50-plus runs. They have 81 home runs on the year.
Sarah Draheim, one of five Cajuns named to the All-Sun Belt first team, is hitting .423 with 15 home runs and 63 RBIs.
In the circle, ULL has leaned heavily on Wallace, who has pitched 214.1 out of 355 innings.
Lotief said he is prepared to use other pitchers if need be.
But he would rather give the ball to Wallace on Friday and have her pitch throughout.
“I’m going to keep my fingers crossed,” he said. “The fewer decisions I have to make, the better.”
Several players from other Louisiana schools made the NFCA All-Central Region first and second teams. First teamers were catcher Draheim and outfielder Brianna Cherry of ULL.
Second teamers were ULL shortstop Nerissa Myers and Louisiana Tech’s Erin Kipp.
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