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Baseball: What makes UL baseball team so special?

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, June 6, 2014

Athletic Network Footnote:
The Ragin’ Cajuns baseball practice for Friday has been moved up to 10:00-11:30 a.m. at "the Tigue". The practice is open to both fans and media. Head coach Tony Robichaux will be available for comments following practice. 

It is inspiration to win. It also makes some want to renovate.

It is a wall mural inside the UL baseball team’s clubhouse, honoring the only Ragin’ Cajuns club – from 2000 – to make it to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

“We look at it every day,” Cajuns catcher Michael Strentz said. “But it was 14 years ago. So we want to change that, and put our picture up there.”

UL coach Tony Robichaux, whose 57-8 Cajuns open a best-of-three Super Regional against Ole Miss on Saturday night at M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field, feels he has a group this year that is just special enough to spur some change in décor.

“I believe we’ve got the team,” said Robichaux, whose Cajuns won last weekend’s Lafayette Regional by bouncing back from a first-round loss to Jackson State to beat San Diego State, beat Jackson State in a rematch and beat Mississippi State in two straight.

“I believe we’ve got the personnel. I know we’ve got the coaching staff ready to go. So, we’re gonna lay it on the line.

“Whether we get to dogpile or not, I don’t know,” Robichaux added. “But the one thing I do know is that we will not have any regret. I mean, these guys are gonna go do everything they can to get it done.”

What makes UL in 2014 the team it is depends on whom you ask.

For starting pitcher Cody Boutte, it’s all about the passion with which the Cajuns play.

“We really don’t talk stats or anything (among) us,” he said. “We’re a group of guys who compete.

“Our hitters get in the box, and they swing the h— out of the bat. Our infielders – they’ll put their chest to the ball. Their throat. Their face. Our pitchers get on the mound and throw with everything they’ve got. Our outfielders will dive for anything. We’re a team that plays to win. We don’t play off past results.

“We bring energy,” Boutte added. “I think that’s what keeps this club so close. Our dugout – I’m gonna tell you right now – is what makes this team. Our dugout brings so much life, it’s unreal. The guys on our team, they pump each other up.”

Centerfielder Caleb Adams sees how close he and his teammates are, and he’s convinced it’s all about that.

He is not alone, either.

“We’re all brothers,” Adams said. “We push each other. We make other better in every phase of the game.”

Robichaux believes it largely stems from so many players – including all but only position starter, No. 1 pitcher Austin Robichaux and relievers like Matt Hicks and Matt Plitt – returning from a 2013 Cajuns club that couldn’t escape the NCAA’s Baton Rouge Regional.

That team was tight too, and it seems to have bled over.

“I think that’s what given us the advantage all year,” said Robichaux, whose Cajuns didn’t lose a weekend series this season.

For Cajun players, however, what really cemented things was a rigorous autumn of 2013.

The team trained, and trained, and trained some more – much of it Navy Seal-style.

“It’s like a brotherhood when you go through that much adversity with somebody you’re with every day,” third baseman Ryan Leonards said.

“For me it’s not even the game. It’s what we did this fall. Together. As a whole team. We busted our butt this fall, and we did all we all kinds of stuff to drain us mentally and physically,” Strentz added. “But it was more on the mental side. So whenever things get hard for us, we’ve got to be mentality prepared for it. And that’s what we do, and we get through it.”

The result: lifelong links for many.

“We’re gonna be in each other’s weddings, we’re gonna help each other raise each other’s kids,” Leonards said. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s one of those things you just can’t beat.”

The fall, Robichaux firmly believes, prompted precisely what it was intended to.

“We put them through everything you can put somebody through,” he said, “to try to make them break rank, to try to make them quit, to try to make them walk out, to try to get them to fracture. And we just couldn’t get them to fracture.”

Still can’t.

The Sun Belt Conference-champion Cajuns – ranked No. 1 nationally, seeded sixth in the NCAA Tournament – haven’t lost back-to-back games all year, and have won more games than any team in the country.

Not all has gone perfectly for everyone all the time. It never does for any team.

But whenever someone is down, it seems there is always someone else there to lift him – or to encourage someone else to do just that.

“When I strike out with the bases juiced, and (first baseman Chase) Compton’s coming up behind me,” Adams said, “sometimes I come in and put my helmet down and I’m mad.

“Then, the next thing you know, I turn around and scream, ‘C’mon Comp, get it done.’ Because we’re all trying to pick each other up. We push each other to be the best we can be. That’s what’s elevated each of our own abilities to where we are now.”

On-field leadership evidently has a lot to do with it too.

Robichaux cites in particular Louisville Slugger All-American second baseman Jace Conrad, a junior, and USA Baseball Collegiate National Team shortstop Blake Trahan, just a true sophomore.

“They (Conrad and Trahan) step up, but they also know they don’t have to carry us,” he said. “They (Cajun teammates) do have a trust factor. … They will pick each other up if they fall.”

It all starts, though, in that clubhouse with the 2000 team’s massive photo.

Lafayette High-product Conrad has a huge voice there, as does Comeaux High-product Strentz.

“With guys like that, sometimes they can say too much,” Robichaux said. “And the one thing I’m proud of both of them for is their leadership growth.”

They’ve learned when to say what, how much of it to stay and, apparently, when to stop saying it too.

It’s the product of a process that seems parallel the development of their team.

“Both of these guys have really grown,” Robichaux said, “and both of these guys have really turned the locker room into the type of locker room you have to have.”

For Conrad in particular, it is precisely the task Robichaux had in mind when he plucked the start of Lafayette’s 2005 Little League World Series team straight out of Lafayette High.

“I told him and his family coming out of high school, when we signed him, that we felt he could change the culture of a locker room,” Robichaux said. “That’s the real big reason I signed him. He was a good player. But …

“One good thing about him is he’s not afraid to say what needs to be said. So, when I signed him that was the ultimate thing I was trying to get. I felt we needed to change the culture, get rid of the buddy system.

“I felt he could come into our clubhouse, and say what needs to be said. That’s what I’m glad I have Jace for,” Robichaux added. “He’s that guy. And he’s matured with it too. He’s that player now you’re willing to fight for, and not fight with. He’s really gotten good at leadership.”

The direction Conrad, Strentz, Trahan and others have provided has resulted in a team that genuinely seems to get it.

The Cajuns are gritty.

They’re baseball-smart.

They’re stand-up characters, but they have streaks of nasty in them too.

“They’re grinders, and they understand not to have an ego – because ego stands for ‘Edging God Out,’ ” Robichaux said. “The greatest gift coaching this team is that they continue to move forward without an ego. That’s just so important.”

Robichaux hopes they keep on moving, too – all the way to Omaha.

Doing so will require taking two from a strong-pitching, 44-18 Ole Miss team that advanced out of its own Oxford Regional with a blowout win over Jacksonville State and two one-run victories, the last in 10 innings, over highly regarded Washington.

But Robichaux seems convinced he has a team that can take care of just what it must against the Rebels.

He really wants it to happen, too – especially after suggesting a long time ago that 2000 would not be his only visit to Omaha.

“It means everything,” Robichaux said. “We poured our heart-and-soul into this – and, shoot, we’ve got the chance of a lifetime.”

For a certain coach, make that a repeat chance.

“We walked out of there a couple of years ago (14, actually) and the big thing I wanted to do,” Robichaux said, “was to try not to be a one-year wonder, and get back.

“I’ve always made a vow that I won’t go there to sit in the bleachers as a fan,” he added. “The only time I’m gonna go is to be in that dugout. So I hope things work out for us this weekend, and I can get back in that dugout.”

To sit, that is, with another rather special team. One that ultimately proves deserving of its own mural.