LAFAYETTE — There were cheers and shouts of happiness late Sunday night when Louisiana-Lafayette’s softball team saw its name pop up during the NCAA Division I Softball Championship selection show.
It wasn’t because the Ragin’ Cajuns were in the 64-team field that begins play at 16 regional sites this week. A spot in the field was a foregone conclusion, given ULL’s 43-13 record and its high ranking in the NCAA’s final regular-season Rating Percentage Index — not to mention the Cajuns having made the field in 22 of the previous 23 years.
The cheers were more for the location, with ULL slotted into the nearby Baton Rouge Regional to be played at LSU’s Tiger Park. The Cajuns are paired with No. 9 national seed LSU, Northwestern State and Central Connecticut State for the double-elimination meet and will meet the Demons at 3 p.m. Friday in the tournament opener.
“If I had to pick a regional, it would have been LSU,” said senior catcher Sarah Draheim, who takes a regional-high .423 batting average into Friday’s game. “This is a great way for us to get to the World Series.”
The team figured it wouldn’t host a regional, as it did last year when it beat Stanford to advance to the super regional round and as it had nine previous times. That was locked up when ULL finished third in the regular season and tournament play in the vastly-improved Sun Belt Conference this season.
Still, ULL missed a host position by only one spot in the final RPI rankings released Monday afternoon. The Cajuns are No. 17 in that listing, with No. 16 Texas A&M claiming the 16th and final regional host berth.
But to hear the Cajuns talk, heading an hour east on I-10 is the next-best thing.
“We’re better off being an at-large team than being a number 15 or 16 regional, and having to go play the number one team in the super regional,” said sophomore pitcher Jordan Wallace (28-7). “I think we’re better off than if we were hosting for getting to the super regional.”
That was ULL’s position last year, going unbeaten on its home field in the regional round but having to travel to meet a red-hot Arizona State team and falling 2-1 in the best-of-three series that sent the Sun Devils to the Women’s College World Series.
“We learned a few things from playing in Arizona,” Wallace said. “We know what to expect a lot more now. The big lights aren’t as daunting now.”
ULL has made five World Series trips and will be making its 15th straight NCAA tournament appearance this weekend.
“It’s something you should never take for granted,” ULL coach Michael Lotief said of getting into the field. “We’re excited just to be playing this time of year. But it’s important to be close to home. It’s very important that the girls feel confident and are comfortable in that venue.”
ULL has played in Baton Rouge-based regionals five previous times and advanced in the past two times the Cajuns were sent to Baton Rouge. ULL won the 2008 event at LSU, went on to win the super regional at Houston and advanced to the World Series that year, and it won again in Baton Rouge in 2010 before falling to UCLA in the super regional round in Los Angeles.
“It’s great for our fans,” Lotief said of playing in Baton Rouge, “but for us, where the venue is doesn’t matter. It’s going to be filled with pressure, filled with excitement wherever it is, and that usually brings out the best in us.”
The Cajuns had won 23 straight games before falling 1-0 in eight innings to eventual Sun Belt tournament winner South Alabama in the winners bracket final. Both Wallace and USA’s Hannah Campbell took no-hitters into the eighth inning in that game, and USA’s win there and a 2-0 victory over Western Kentucky in the tournament final boosted the Jaguars to a No. 13 national seed and a regional host award this weekend.
WKU also got into its first NCAA tournament, heading to Louisville, as the Sun Belt got three teams into postseason play for the first time.
“The parity there was phenomenal,” Lotief said of the league meet. “We played well enough to win. A pitch or two here and a call or two there. That should help us this week, but a regional magnifies that even more. You can win every game and you can lose every game when you get to this stage. The margin is that slim.”