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Softball: Cajuns hard to figure

Kevin Foote, May 21, 2014

Many believe that UL coach Michael Lotief has done his best job this season. (Photo: Leslie Westbrook/The Advertiser )

To be shocked by any amount of success achieved by it is like scratching your head if LSU baseball or the New England Patriots or the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Lakers of old enjoy a great season.

This is a program that was making Women’s College World Series appearances before Tony Robichaux took over the baseball program. This is a program that’s only missed postseason play once since Shaquille O’Neal was playing at LSU.

That’s 24 times in the last 25 years. And for the record, the Cajuns won 48 games (and probably should have been in) 26 years ago as well.

Even with that understood, it was easy to see how someone might have been more than a bit worried about the prospects for this year’s squad entering the season. There were huge shoes to fill, like those of such elite performers as Nerissa Myers at shortstop, Brianna Cherry in center, Sarah Draheim at catcher and Matte Haack at first base.

Instead of that group, the 2014 Cajuns would be relying heavily on a true freshman outfielder in Haley Hayden who had never played the outfield before, a first baseman in Shelbi Redfearn who batted .083 last season, an 18-year-old catcher in Lexie Elkins transferring from Texas Tech who really should have been playing high school softball last spring and a third baseman in Kelsey Vincent who batted .135 primarily as a pinch-hitter last year.

If that didn’t sound daunting enough, what if you actually knew some of the developments that would take place before making your preseason prediction?

In addition to losing four highly productive players, you’re told that sophomores Shellie Landry, Sara Corbello and Samantha Walsh would all endure prolonged hitting slumps, that neither of the true freshman pitchers would show enough early on to provide any workload relief in the circle, that the eventual replacement for Myers at shortstop would be a red-shirt freshman wearing a brace coming off three knee surgeries and that 2013’s heroic pitcher Jordan Wallace would struggle to the point of losing her position as the staff’s ace before Sun Belt play even began.

Be honest, knowing all of those factors the day after National Signing Day, how far would you have predicted this team to go?

Hearing it in those terms, yes, it truly is remarkable that this team currently stands 47-8-1, is the No. 6 overall national seed, was 19-1 in Sun Belt play and is now two wins away from the program’s sixth all-time WCWS appearance.

Of course as time went on, we began to learn a little more about the makeup and character of this squad. Long before this team hit its stride, the very first weekend of the season gave us some hints, if we were paying attention.

Hayden quickly showed she was no ordinary freshman hitter. Elkins displayed the consistency of a senior at the plate and behind it and then there was a six-inning relief appearance in the third game of the season.

The Cajuns had come from way behind to win the first game 10-8 over Northern Iowa, then lost 10-7 to Texas and was seemingly heading for a second straight loss to North Carolina when it happened.

None of us really knew what it meant at the time, but Christina Hamilton threw six no-hit innings of relief and the Cajuns won that game 6-5 in 10 innings. By the time UL was hosting defending national champion Oklahoma in mid-March, Hamilton was pitching both games of a doubleheader sweep. And when Sun Belt play opened a week after that, Hamilton was in the circle.

This red-shirt junior amazingly transformed herself before our very eyes from a loner to the ultimate team player and provided this team with a relief appearance for the ages throughout her 2014 season.

In my preseason column, I said that if Hamilton and the freshman duo of Macey Smith and Alex Stewart could tag-team enough wins in support of Wallace, "that it might just work out."

As it turned out, Hamilton made it all work out far better than anyone could have predicted with a 27-2 record, a 1.53 ERA and a gutty, unflappable consistency that no one who watched her college career prior to this spring thought she possessed.

If all goes as planned this weekend against Arizona, Hamilton will pitch two games (three if necessary) as she finishes out one of the great story-line campaigns in UL athletic history.

But Hamilton’s story is just one of several reasons it all ended up working out so well.

While Hamilton provided the answer in the circle, a magical moment against Michigan began to suggest a solution nearly everywhere else. Freshman shortstop Corin Voinche’ got her foot in the door with a home run against the Wolverines and that quickly led to her being entrenched at shortstop.

No she wasn’t going to provide the kind of pop at the plate and seasoned leadership of a Nerissa Myers, but Voinche’ taking over that spot suddenly made so much make sense. Now Walsh could play third, where she’s shined, allowing Vincent to move over to first, where she’s seemed much more comfortable.

The pieces were beginning to fall into place.

Another major factor that some have overlooked is the coaching staff. The additions of T.J. Hubbard and Lisa Norris were huge. I’m not sure last year’s fragmented coaching staff situation could have transformed this team from what it was in the fall to where it is now.

When doing a feature on Hubbard earlier this season, he laughed when questioned about his initial reaction of his new team back in the fall. He basically looked at Lotief and said, "We’ve got a long way to go and an awful lot of work to do."

He may have been right, but the work’s been done. A gem has been crafted. A team that will be used as an inspiring example of the power of teamwork for decades to come is about to finish its story.

Lotief said at his Monday press luncheon that this team is phenomenal no matter what happens against Arizona this weekend.

That may be true, but he’s got a bunch of young ladies on his hands daydreaming about nothing less than taking a picture with a big trophy in Oklahoma City.