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Softball: Cajuns return with mixed feelings

 Joshua Parrott • jparrott@theadvertiser.com • June 2, 2008  

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UL vs. Florida  http://www.theadvertiser.com/apps/pbcs.dll/gallery?Avis=DG&Dato=20080529&Kategori=SPORTS&Lopenr=805290803&Ref=PH&Profile=1006

Texas A & M vs. UL http://www.theadvertiser.com/apps/pbcs.dll/gallery?Avis=DG&Dato=20080530&Kategori=SPORTS&Lopenr=805300805&Ref=PH&Profile=1006

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UL Softball Returns: http://www.theadvertiser.com/apps/pbcs.dll/gallery?Avis=DG&Dato=20080601&Kategori=SPORTS&Lopenr=806010804&Ref=PH&Profile=1006

OKLAHOMA CITY – As the reality of a 3-1 loss to third-seeded Alabama at the Women’s College World Series set in – that’s when the tears started to flow for UL’s softball team and co-coach Stefni Lotief. 

Senior Holly Tankersley and sophomore Melissa Verde stared at the field in disbelief from the dugout before the inevitable tears followed.

Sophomore Brittany Cuevas and freshmen Gabriele Bridges, Donna Bourgeois and Ashley Brignac shared a group hug and cried like sisters often do.

Senior Vanessa Soto, faced with the finality of her collegiate career, showed her emotions as the cheers of "Ragin’ Cajuns" echoed throughout ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

"There were tears of sadness knowing it was my last game, but there were also tears of joy because we had such a great season," Soto said. "I was thinking ‘I’m lucky to be here right now.’"

That was how the 2008 season ended just past midnight Sunday for unseeded UL (52-15) in a game that aired on ESPN. Third-ranked Alabama (58-7) maintained the momentum through a 97-minute lightning delay holding a 3-1 lead in the middle of the sixth inning and capitalized on two errors to eliminate the 16th-ranked Cajuns, who were making their first World Series appearance since 2003.

The loss did not keep fans from greeting the Cajuns as they returned to Lamson Park on Sunday night via charter bus.

"I don’t think words can describe the emotions we are feeling right now," Lotief said immediately after the game. "I’m very proud of this team and very proud of these young ladies. We had a weather delay, but it didn’t dampen their spirits.

"Unfortunately, we didn’t play the best defense we could have played, which is not very characteristic of this team."

Alabama, led by former Cajun assistant coach Patrick Murphy, took advantage of UL’s mistakes at critical times. After walking to lead off the first inning, Crimson Tide All-American Brittany Rogers stole second base, advanced to third on a passed ball and scored on Charlotte Morgan’s groundout for a 1-0 lead.

In the fifth, two errors and an ill-advised diving catch in foul territory by the Cajuns resulted in two more runs for Alabama.

Tankersley smashed a solo homer – her 23rd of the year and 71st of her career – to deep center in the sixth, but the All-American’s bomb produced UL’s only run of the night. Slap-hitters Vallie Gaspard, Karli Hubbard and Katie Smith went a combined 4-for-9, but Tankersley’s homer was the only other Cajun hit off Alabama lefty Charlotte Morgan.

The Cajuns had their chances, stranding runners in the second, third and fifth and five total in the game. Alabama shortstop Kellie Eubanks ended the third with a diving catch on a Soto blooper down the third-base line with the speedy Hubbard on first.

Soto, who slapped a two-run double against Florida, came to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded in the fifth. She hit a sharp grounder to Eubanks, who relayed the ball to second baseman Whitney Larsen for the inning’s third out.

Bourgeois pitched into the sixth inning, giving up four hits and three runs – all unearned – and fell to 16-5 with the loss. Cuevas struck out the only two batters she faced in the sixth.

It marked the second consecutive game in which the Cajuns committed two errors in a narrow loss. They were sent into the losers’ bracket after falling to No. 5 seed Texas A&M, 2-1, on Friday. That followed Thursday’s 3-2 win against top-seeded Florida on ESPN in what many considered the biggest World Series upset in recent memory. The victory against Florida was UL’s first in World Series play since 1996 and only the second for the program against a top-ranked team.

That’s just one of the many memories Cajun players and coaches know will last forever. The main highlights of the year include winning the Sun Belt’s regular-season and conference tournament championships and knocking off No. 9 national seed LSU in regionals and No. 8 seed Houston in Super Regionals to earn the program’s fifth World Series berth.

Getting to Oklahoma City was a huge step for a Cajun team with only three seniors – Tankersley, Soto and shortstop Brooke Brodhead – and 10 newcomers this year. That made the Alabama loss that much more emotional for the Cajuns.

"It was heartbreaking because this was something we had worked to get for years and years," Tankersley said. "We were all in tears. But we know we can hang with the best of the best. We can’t really be upset because we’ve accomplished so many goals. We should be very proud of ourselves."