ULL, Michigan square off with WCWS berth on line

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A lot has changed since the No. 21-ranked Louisiana-Lafayette softball team squared off against No. 8 Michigan on Feb. 22.

Mainly, 49 games have passed between now and then.

The Wolverines defeated the Ragin’ Cajuns 3-1 at the NFCA Leadoff Classic in Clearwater, Fla., and the teams will once again meet this weekend in the best-of-three Ann Arbor Super Regional.

If ULL (46-13) gets past Michigan (48-10), it will be the first time since 2008 the Ragin’ Cajuns played in the Women’s College World Series.

“I think at that point and time, we were a different team,” ULL senior shortstop Nerissa Myers said, referring the Feb. 22 game against Michigan. “We needed help making adjustments that a lot of the younger ones (and) a lot of the older ones were having trouble making, that we know how to make now.”

So, in what part of the game has ULL made adjustments?

“I think it’s just maturity,” Myers said. “A lot of the younger ones got to face great pitching. I just think with all the experiences tied in together, Jordan (Wallace) pitching her best — everyone here, it’s a totally different team.”

Myers certainly knows about tough experiences after she missed 18 games in the middle of the season with an ankle injury. But Myers has returned stronger than ever, hitting .410 with a .548 on-base percentage at the top of the lineup.

“She’s the heart and soul of our team,” Louisiana-Lafayette coach Michael Lotief said. “Our defense runs through her. She’s our leadoff hitter. She’s the kid that sets the tone on our team.”

Despite going 9-9 in Myers’ absence, ULL still ranks eighth nationally in home runs with 83 and 15th in team batting average at .322.

During Thursday’s final practice, the Ragin’ Cajuns spent two of their allotted 21/2 hours at the plate or in the batting cages. It’s a formula that’s paid off for Lotief, as ULL sits seventh nationally in runs scored per game (6.80).

And the approach will have to pay off if the Ragin’ Cajuns are going to have any luck against Michigan right-hander Sara Driesenga.

Driesenga shined last weekend, allowing only one run and 12 hits while striking out 19 as the Wolverines won their regional. The sophomore pitched three consecutive complete games while improving her season ERA to 1.67.

ULL, of course, will counter with Wallace, its own sophomore ace. The right-hander from Weatherford, Texas, also pitched three complete games, but didn’t allow a single run. Wallace fired 25 strikeouts, utilizing her newly developed dropball and changeup to complement her curveball and riseball.

“A lot of people think it’s her stuff,” Lotief said, “but it’s her confidence, her will and her heart.”

Wallace will likely need it all when she takes on the Wolverines’ offense, which ranks second in the nation in runs scored (7.16), thanks to a trio of power hitters.

Freshman Sierra Romero, senior Ashley Lane and Junior Caitlin Blanchard form an integral part of an offense that has accounted for 19 run-rule victories.

“Anybody in the top 16 now is playing good softball,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “It doesn’t matter if we beat them in February or they beat us. I can tell you that every team in the country that’s still playing is better than they were in February.”

But if the Ragin’ Cajuns have one thing on their side, its experience on the road.

That will be very important, as Michigan is undefeated at home this season.

“LSU has great fans, and I think they made it very hard for us to play in that type of environment,” said Myers, whose team defeated the Tigers at the Baton Rouge Regional last weekend. “But it also helped us get ready to play here on the road. I think that we’re a pretty good away team as well.”