UL-Lafayette first has to stay alive at WCWS

OKLAHOMA CITY — Two months ago, Natalie Fernandez had to explain the gravity of Louisiana-Lafayette swiping a doubleheader against Oklahoma.

Exiting the circle, newly minted ace Christina Hamilton needed clarification after a series win over the reigning national champions.

“That’s good, right?” Hamilton asked the Ragin’ Cajuns second baseman.

“Yes,” Fernandez answered. “It’s a good thing.”

Taking down the Sooners may have confirmed the potential for an overwhelmingly young UL-Lafayette roster. Now, the Cajuns (49-9-1) need to topple the Sooners (50-12) at 1:30 p.m. to take the first step back from the brink at the Women’s College World Series.

Oh, and do it in front of up to 8,000 seats filled at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium largely filled with fans in crimson and cream.

Even for a coach as even-keeled as UL-Lafayette’s Mike Lotief, might those parameters present a certain level of difficulty?

“I don’t think see it like that,” Lotief said. “I don’t think this venue is intimidating.”

This is life in the losers bracket. Quibbling is wasted breath. Or just distracted focus from the goal of nabbing four wins over two days to escape.

Even then, history deals this daunting fact: Only three teams since 2000 have played for a national title after losing their first game. UCLA, all the way back in 2003, was the lone team to leave with hardware.

So, Lotief’s program won’t change its worldview as trying to punt a 4-1 opening loss to Kentucky from their collective psyche.

“Once you get to postseason, you just have to keep growing and make adjustments quick,” Fernandez said. “Either way, if we had play today or tomorrow, we just have to keep learning fast.”

Twenty miles to the south, the Sooners worked out at their on-campus facility, a break coach Patty Gasso thought her team needed after a 6-2 loss to Alabama — one where she thought OU looked listless.

“I need a hunger. I need a passion,” Gasso said afterward. “If those things come, we’re going to do well. We will have success, but we need to bring that from the start to the finish.”

Facing the Sooners makes for a refresher course more than a cram session.

Sure, OU shellacked the Cajuns in a 13-5 series opener March 14. But that was with Jordan Wallace, last season’s pitcher of the year in the Sun Belt Conference, still struggling. She walked six batters, hit four more, gave up 11 hits and threw three wild pitches.

A day later, the Cajuns jumped on Sooners starter Kelsey Stevens (37-9) in outscoring the Sooners 10-1. Stevens, who will get the start Saturday, rode out of Lafayette with a 4.63 ERA against the UL-Lafayette lineup.

“We can always go back and look at old video,” Fernandez said. “I’m sure her plans have changed just watching us more.”

Still, sifting through old clips and charting pitches won’t be necessary, Lotief said.

“She may use different sequences,” Lotief said. “They may use some of the experiences from playing us to make some adjustments.”

But the ramifications of the series were bigger for Hamilton. Smothering the Sooners, and needing just 182 pitches in two games, bestowed the job of ace on Hamilton — even if she shuns the title.

Yet Hamilton is coming off her first loss in eight starts, one where she her line of two earned runs on five hits over seven innings doesn’t cause cringes. Three errors led to two runs, but Hamilton said mechanics and locating pitches had untimely slips.

“I don’t have to work in the strike zone,” Hamilton said. “I can trust my defense to make a play whenever they hit a ball out of the strike zone for a little dribbler. That’s what I need to get back to.”

The Sooners lineup, though, doesn’t contain a conspicuous absence, though. First baseman Lauren Chamberlain, who missed the series as part of 25 games lost to back and knee injuries, is in the three-hole.

On Thursday, her presence alone led Alabama’s Jaclyn Traina intentionally walk her twice. The addition is just one reason Gasso is keen on the rematch.

“We’re a completely different team,” Gasso said.

Fair point, but the Cajuns contend it cuts both ways.

“They might be,” Fernandez said. “But we’re a different team. Every time we come out here, we get better.”

Follow Matthew Harris on Twitter: @MHarrisAdvocate.