Ragin’ Cajuns reflect on great baseball season

LAFAYETTE — The disappointment was obvious, after coming up short twice in two nights, and nobody could blame the members of the Louisiana-Lafayette baseball team if they looked a little shellshocked.

After all, the last two games of the NCAA’s Lafayette super regional were the worst possible time for the Ragin’ Cajuns to lose two straight games for the first time this season.

“We couldn’t get into our rhythm,” said senior shortstop Ryan Leonards, only minutes after Ole Miss had finished off a 10-4 victory in the winner-take-all Game 3 and punched its ticket to the College World Series. “They threw a bunch of good arms at us ... we couldn’t get the big hits when we needed them.

“And credit to them; they made plays when they needed to.”

It hadn’t been often that members of the Cajuns squad used that description for an opponent this season, one filled with more superlatives than arguably any UL-Lafayette athletic team in the program’s history. No other Division I squad had ever been ranked No. 1 in an NCAA sport, something the Cajuns were in all four national polls going into the NCAA tournament.

No other Cajun team ever held the country’s best won-lost record, something UL-Lafayette claimed well before midseason and never relinquished — and something none of the eight College World Series survivors can approach, regardless of what happens over the next two weeks.

Coach Tony Robichaux was keenly aware of that Tuesday night, even while his players were still battling the shock of having their season end abruptly, one step away from fulfilling the promise of the “Mission: Omaha” T-shirts they wore.

“These guys just played their hearts out, and that’s why you see the passion, the emotion with them,” Robichaux said. “They know they were good enough to get there. The problem is that there’s a lot of people home today believing that they were good enough, too, and only eight (teams) go.

“And that’s what makes Omaha special. When you walk through the door of Rosenblatt Stadium, that’s what makes it so special, is that you’ve got eight people who had to endure so much to be able to get there.”

The College World Series is now played across Omaha at TD Ameritrade Park instead of the now-demolished Rosenblatt facility where the Cajuns played in their only previous trip in 2000. Rosenblatt itself was a much smaller park when Ole Miss made its last CWS trip in 1972, but that didn’t matter to the mound of dogpiling Rebel players between first and second base on the artificial turf of Moore Field on Monday night, moments after Ole Miss shortstop threw out Cajuns outfielder and leading hitter Caleb Adams for the final out.

It was a flashback for Robichaux, with a ground ball to first base at South Carolina providing the final out against the Gamecocks in 2000 that sent the Cajuns to Omaha.

“I want to give credit to Ole Miss and (coach) Mike (Bianco) for coming in and being able to be down one and coming back and win two straight,” he said. “There’s no better feeling than when you get that last out to get to Omaha. On the other side of it, there’s going to be a team that’s not going to feel real good.”

UL-Lafayette had made a habit of checking off goals throughout the 58-10 season, which remains the best percentage mark (.853) for a Division I team in more than a decade. The Cajuns became the first team in the country to get to 30, 40 and 50 wins on the way to winning the Sun Belt Conference regular-season title by a record-tying seven games.

They followed that with a four-game sweep of the Sun Belt tournament for their first league tourney trophy since 1998, and that title locked up a first-ever national seed (the Cajuns were seeded sixth).

That also gave them the opportunity for a first-ever host position for the super regional round, provided they win their own regional.

UL-Lafayette did that the hard way, falling in a 1-0 shocker to Jackson State in the opener — the first and only time all year they were shut out — before storming back to beat four teams by a combined 39-14, including back-to-back wins over Mississippi State.

The Cajuns then got themselves within one game of Omaha in the 9-5 super regional opener Saturday, but Ole Miss battled back for a 5-2 Sunday win to force Game 3. Before that was over Monday night, the other seven spots in the College World Series bracket had been filled, the seventh coming just at the time the Rebels got a pivotal throw-out at the plate to end the seventh inning and maintain their lead.

“This game is a lot about momentum,” outfielder Seth Harrison said. “We had the momentum going our way, and that play took it and gave it back to Ole Miss. We came back and tried to respond and fight the rest of the game, and it just didn’t work out.”

Robichaux added: “We’re going to focus on what they really accomplished. If we’re sitting here in June and that’s only their 10th loss, to reel off 58 wins like they did, to win a conference championship, a conference tournament championship, a regional championship and then host a regional and super regional — what they accomplished is really phenomenal for me and for our coaching staff.”