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Baseball: ‘This team just doesn’t quit’

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, June 6, 2015


As he sat behind a microphone in Houston almost a week ago, UL baseball coach Tony Robichaux was asked about his 2014 team that went 58-10 but finished one win shy of a trip to the College World Series.

It would have Robichaux’s second trip to Omaha, Nebraska, for the CWS since UL’s first and only in 2000.

The loss that did the Ragin’ Cajuns in last season came in the third game of a UL-hosted best-of-three NCAA Super Regional series against Ole Miss.

"Last year I had my own son on it, and that last game that we lost hurts," Robichaux, his voice quivering, said after this 2015 Cajuns beat Rice last Monday to win the NCAA Houston Regional. "It still hurts today. He would have pitched on Father’s Day in Omaha.

"We did a lot with that team with older guys," Robichaux continued, the words still fighting their way out. "But to do it with these guys, it means a lot."

Robichaux — whose No. 16 Cajuns play Game 2 of the NCAA Super Regional at No. 1-ranked LSU on Sunday night — finally choked up, unable to continue talking until another question was asked a long six seconds later.

The son he spoke of is Austin Robichaux, now a pitcher in the Los Angeles Angels minor-league organization.

He knows as well as anyone just how big it is to his father for this year’s group to do what it has, and go where many doubted it could, especially in light of last year’s losses.

"Huge," Austin Robichaux said. "Ever since 2000, when I got to see him get to Omaha and I got to go (watch), I made it a pact to try to get back there with him, and it hurt to be one game short.

"But for him to be this close a second year in a row — that probably takes a whole lot of weight off his shoulders."

It’s two distinctly different teams that Tony Robichaux has taken to Super Regionals this year and last, making the accomplishment that much more impressive.

There are similarities in each club’s will to win.

And there is some personnel crossover, including All-American shortstop Blake Trahan and fifth-year senior designated hitter Tyler Girouard.

But UL lost 10 players from 2014 that were drafted and/or went on to play in the minors, and is doing it this year with arguably less talent and undeniably less experience.

The Cajuns, in fact, lost their whole weekend starting pitching staff from 2014 (Austin Robichaux, Carson Baranik and Cody Boutte) and replaced them with three true freshmen (Gunner Leger, Wyatt Marks and Evan Guillory).

"Last year, we wanted to fight every time we got on the field. This team is more of a relaxed team," said second baseman Jace Conrad, a 2014 team member now in the Tampa Bay Rays system. "They don’t press too hard. … They don’t push the panic button. Whether they’re down or they’re up, they stay pretty even-keeled."

Indeed, UL got a grand slam from new second baseman Stefan Trosclair to beat South Alabama 5-1 in the 12-inning Sun Belt Conference Tournament title game — after dropping its opening game to Texas State, then battling through the losers bracket.

The Cajuns scored five runs in the ninth to open the Houston Regional with a 7-6 win over Rice.

They went into the bottom of the ninth down 1-0 against Regional host Houston, then won 2-1 after Girouard was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.

In an open letter he penned while riding in a bus on the minor-league trail, Conrad called this year’s Cajuns "grinders," "a selfless group of nobody’s just trying to make a name for themselves" and "a bunch of guys who don’t care about anything but getting after somebody whenever it comes to crunch time."

"This team doesn’t quit," said Conrad, whose younger brother Brenn is on the team now, "and that’s the biggest thing that makes them so special."

"Last year we were successful throughout the whole season. We never really ran into any great type of adversity," Trahan added. "This (42-21) team has been through the weather a little bit. We lost a good bit of games, and we’ve been beaten up a little bit. So, we’re like a three-legged dog. We’re kind of mean right now, and we’re ready to fight."

Leadership has a lot to do with that.

"They know how to come back and win ballgames," Austin Robichaux said. "I think a huge part of it has to do with Blake Trahan and Tyler Girouard, especially Shugg (Girouard).

"Him coming back (for a fifth year) helped them tremendously. He was one of the best leaders I ever got to play with. Same thing with B.T. (Trahan). I can’t tell you how much of a privilege it was to play next to those two guys."

Girouard, however, has a decidedly different personality than last year’s now-gone leaders.

"The big thing I think this team has is their own ‘arrogance,’ if you will. You know, Jace and Mike’s was very evident," Tony Robichaux said of Conrad and 2014 catcher Mike Strentz, now in the Angels organization too. "You could see it in (batting practice).

"These guys have a little bit more of a quiet demeanor amongst themselves. … Mike’s personality and Jace’s personality is way different from Shugg’s and (Evan) Powell’s and (Greg) Davis’. Theirs are a little bit more cut-up, loose. Which I think’s been good for the freshmen.

"With Jace and Mike," Robichaux added, "I don’t know if a few of these freshmen wouldn’t be dead. Their push is really hard. Which is good. It worked for last year. Ryan Wilson was like that. They were some very tough and intense guys."

This year’s group has its own inner strength.

It’s just that it wears it like its predecessor did not.

"The biggest challenge of this team is you’re following a team that was historic," hitting coach Jeremy Talobot said of a 2014 club that started the postseason ranked No. 1 nationally. "It might have been one of the best teams ever assembled here.

"You’re talking about 58 wins, 60 being a Division I record. That’s really hard to follow, especially when you lose six of the nine hitters off that lineup, and guys that were playing complementary roles are now forced into it.

"The biggest thing I’m proud of with this group is they forged their own identity, and that’s not an easy task. This group’s got a lot of character, a lot of guts," Talbot added. "This group can live inside a bubble, and they keep their eyes on the prize. Nothing rattles this group. … I just think this group is tough, mentally tough."

Girouard, for one, knew going into 2015 that things would have to be different from 2014.

Then, the Cajuns had a club built to make a run. Now, that’s not necessarily the case – yet they’re almost to the finish line anyway.

"Last year we overwhelmed people," Girouard said. "We just weren’t going to do that (this year), and the leadership, our older guys, had to handle the failure better.

"Last year’s guys, we really didn’t have failure. The year before that (when UL went to the 2013 Baton Rouge Regional), we didn’t have that much failure. The seniors and older guys, we’ve done a good job of handling that and turning it into something positive and learning from it."

In the end, UL wound up with a 2015 team that’s gotten — to this point — just as far as 2014’s.

With Leger, Marks and Guillory all producing results, and true freshman closer Dylan Moore as well, plus clutch relief pitching from juco-transfer Will Bacon, senior Greg Milhorn and others, all caught by junior Nick Thurman, the Cajun pitching staff has gotten the job done.

Seniors Milhorn, Powell, Davis, Girouard and Dylan Butler all came up big for UL in various Regional games, with Powell — not even an every-day player early in the season, then out with hand-bone surgery in the middle of it — even earning Houston Regional Most Outstanding Player honors.

"I’m not really that surprised, to be honest," Austin Robichaux said. "You know, everybody was so focused on what we lost last year. … They lost focus on the guys that were still there, and the guys we were gonna get. I mean, the guys that are still there are unbelievable leaders. They’re unbelievable baseball players."

And their coach has an unbelievably yearning desire for this year’s club to get where last year’s couldn’t.

Tony Robichaux wants to make one trip after Baton Rouge.

Back to Omaha.

"I know how bad he wants to get back there," Austin Robichaux said.