For Ragin’ Cajuns’ Jace Conrad, ‘it’s win or death’

LAFAYETTE — Jace Conrad readily admits to occasional selfish play in his first two seasons on the Louisiana-Lafayette baseball squad.

It’s to be expected. Since he started playing at a young age, dating to his Lafayette High prep career, his participation in summer ball and as part of the Lafayette Little League’s journey to the Little League World Series nine years ago, Conrad always had to shoulder the biggest burden. And where teammates enjoyed winning, Conrad was driven by a healthy disdain of losing.

He had to hit, play defense, pitch on occasion, and if he didn’t do his jobs well, his teams rarely won.

“Yeah, I had some selfishness,” the Ragin’ Cajuns second baseman said. “I was playing some for myself. Now, I don’t worry about anything but playing hard for my teammates.”

He’s seeing the results of that selflessness. UL-Lafayette was the country’s top-ranked college team in the Collegiate Baseball poll last week and stands at No. 2; the Cajuns, at 27-3, own the nation’s best percentage (.900); they’re in the top 10 nationally in several offensive categories; and they lead the Sun Belt Conference in every meaningful statistical category.

And Conrad? He leads the team in hitting (.364), RBIs (35) and stolen bases (12), has the fewest strikeouts of any everyday starter (12) and has handled 147 chances at second base this season without an error.

UL-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux isn’t surprised.

“He’s learning to channel his hatred to lose,” Robichaux said. “For him, it’s win or death. That’s the only two options he subscribes to.”

That determination drew an analogy Tuesday night from long-time UL-Lafayette radio play-by-play announcer Jay Walker, right after Conrad had three hits and his teammates contributed 19 more in a 16-0 pummeling of Tulane.

“He’s become Nathan Nelson,” Walker said, and long-time Cajuns fans know that is huge praise.

Nelson was the unquestioned leader of UL-Lafayette’s 2000 march to the College World Series, the third baseman becoming the emotional rallying point for a team that eventually tied for third nationally. Nelson had the offensive statistics that year, certainly (.373, 101 hits, 47 RBIs), but his intensity and passion may have been more important in that team’s success.

This year’s unit is so far the most successful since that 2000 team, and Conrad’s improvement is part of the reason why.

“Jace has a passion,” Robichaux said. “He had it all the way back to that Little League team. They went off his passion. He’s a gamer ... he kind of drives our train.”

“Gamers” are expected to produce in conference play, and Conrad takes a .459 batting average and an .892 slugging mark in Sun Belt play into this weekend’s three-game series at Troy. He also carries a 14-game hitting streak and has reached base safely in 20 straight games. He’s also a perfect 9-for-9 with a runner on third and less than two out.

Not by coincidence, UL-Lafayette upped its team batting average more than 40 points in the past three weeks, up to .319 to rank fifth nationally.

“It’s so much better when everyone’s having success,” Conrad said. “Coach tells us all the time that there are no limitations when everyone is involved, and we’re proving that. When everyone’s going, we’re a dangerous team.”

Conrad hit .286 in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, but has increased his numbers dramatically this year. He goes into the weekend as the Sun Belt’s second-leading hitter.

“Hitters get better over time,” Robichaux said. “They get more at-bats, they play the game more, and over time you get better. But Jace has put in a lot of time to make himself a better and more consistent hitter. Last year was good, but now he’s learning more and getting better at his craft. You want a guy like that to get up in a big situation.”

The biggest situations often come with two outs, and Conrad has 17 two-out RBIs this year. He’s also tops on the team in hitting with runners in scoring position (.385).

A prime example of that two-out hitting came Tuesday night, when six of the Cajuns’ first seven runs over the first five innings scored with two outs. Conrad scored one of those runs, among three he scored in the game, and he also had an RBI double in a six-run sixth inning that insured UL-Lafayette’s 11th straight win against in-state competition.

“That’s how you break someone’s back,” Conrad said of his and the team’s two-out abilities. “You have a pitcher that’s just about to get out of an inning, and then to give up runs there ... that’s when we try to break someone’s will.”