LAFAYETTE — Two of the three elements Tony Robichaux feels are necessary for winning baseball were often absent when his University of Louisiana at Lafayette was on the field last season.
As they plummeted to last place in the Sun Belt Conference standings (11-19), the Ragin’ Cajuns also finished near the bottom of the league in hitting and fielding.
While the Cajuns led the conference in overall pitching last year, Robichaux said he took aggressive offseason action to rectify ULL’s offense, which featured only 18 team home runs and a .263 batting average in 2012.
“We didn’t play good enough defense and we didn’t get the timely hitting. When you don’t do two of the three, you’re going to wind up at the bottom,” said Robichaux, whose teams have won five conference titles at ULL since he came there in 1995.
In some ways, Robichaux said, he’s still haunted by ULL’s 23-30 overall record last season, but after watching his team complete fall practices and prepare for the Feb. 8 season opener at home against Central Michigan, there are some encouraging signs.
“Last year is, well, last year,” he said. “If you coach long enough, you’re going to be on the bottom and on the top. Last season we had a very young team and had some injuries. Then we weren’t doing the things we needed to do to be successful.
“What you try to do with something like that is re-evaluate everything and get back out in the following fall and fix what’s broken. We were last in just about every offensive category, so what we did is go out and bring in some more hitters.
“I think we also added some more age, with junior college transfers that have us in better position than last year.”
One of the Cajuns’ key injuries occurred when starting catcher Mike Strentz re-injured an elbow that required surgery before the start of the season.
Strentz, scheduled to start again this year, said ULL experienced some other issues.
“There was no leadership, no loyalty to the team. This year, we have guys who are real teammates and leaders. If there’s a problem now, we’re going to go right after it,” said Strentz, a sophomore from Lafayette.
Strentz handles a pitching staff he thinks is even better than the one that led the league last year in earned run average and runs and hits allowed.
Sophomore Austin Robichaux, a 6-foot-5 right-hander, walked only 11 in 43 innings and featured a 2.91 ERA.
The Cajuns signed junior left-hander Cody Boutte of New Iberia, who pitched the championship game when LSU-Eunice won the National Junior College Athletic Association title last year.
Robichaux said the pitching staff last year was hurt by injuries to junior Ben Carter, who played at Parkview Baptist, and Chase Traffica.
Neither pitched an inning in the regular season.
Junior first baseman Chase Compton, who played at Slidell’s Northshore High, was ULL’s leading hitter last year (.328).
Compton played summer ball in Anchorage, Alaska, and was selected as a league all-star.
Also returning as a starter is sophomore second baseman Jace Conrad.
Robichaux expects to start Blake Trahan, a freshman, at shortstop, along with Destrehan native and junior college transfer Sam Carriere (LSUE) at third.
In the outfield, there are junior college transfers Ryan Wilson and Dex Kjerstad, who played at the University of Texas as a freshman.
Also in the outfield is junior Dylan Butler from Belle Chasse, who led the Cajuns with eight homers.
Compton said he’s optimistic that ULL will improve offensively.
“We have a different attitude up at the plate. There’s a new mental toughness that is allowing us to have confidence. Last year we left a lot of runners on base (407) and we’re correcting that,” Compton said.
Compton attributes most of the improvement to assistant coach Matt Deggs, in his second season ast ULL.
Robichaux said he has compartmentalized aspects of ULL’s failures in 2012, while attempting to move on into the present.
“I think last year was really a mixture of a lot of things. We lost a couple of arms like Carter and Traffica along with having a lot of youth. Overall, it was a bad concoction.
“What we’re trying to do now is leave last year in last year,” Robichaux said.