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Softball: Stewart responded when Cajuns needed it most

Kevin Foote, The Advertiser, April 2, 2015


There are times to have fun.

There are times to be silly and light-hearted.

Then there are times to stand and fight.

UL sophomore pitcher Alex Stewart faced that reality toward the end of last Saturday’s Sun Belt Conference series opener at Texas State.

The No. 10-ranked Ragin’ Cajuns had made the trip to San Marcos, Texas, without their emotional leader and longtime head coach Michael Lotief, who was back home in the hospital, continuing his personal 32-year battle with carcinoma of the nasopharynx.

The Cajuns were down 14-8 at the time after the two pitchers — Jordan Wallace and Christina Hamilton — who had carried the club for most of the season got uncharacteristically roughed up.

The coaching staff told Stewart to warm up. Depending on how the Cajuns’ lineup performed in the top of the seventh, she would pitch the bottom of the seventh or start game two.

“At that moment, I was just focused on competing for my teammates,” Stewart said. “I just kept telling myself that I had to compete. Everything had to be a notch higher. I had to bring it.”

Like most reserve players, Stewart had no idea if she’d even be pitching on her way to Texas. She had made nine appearances going into last weekend’s series, including six starts, but it also wasn’t unusual to not pitch at all on a given weekend series.

Like most reserve players, she’s told over and over to work hard in every practice like she’s about to start the next game. She’s instructed to prepare for each game like she’s the starter.

Like every reserve player, though, Stewart’s not a robot. Something tells me that most reserves aren’t actually 100 percent mentally prepared for every game.

As it turned out, Stewart was ready on this day, and it was a good thing.

Suddenly, this young pitcher who had been coddled along during her short college career with the future in mind, was abruptly thrown into the biggest moment of her career.

The alarmist had all the ammunition necessary to enter full panic mode.

Many diehard UL softball fans likely feared, “Our two ace pitchers just endured their worst outings of the season and the team is struggling emotionally with Coach Lotief in the hospital. This doesn’t look good.”

First, Stewart calmed the raging seas with a three-inning start in game two.

In game one, UL’s pitching allowed 14 runs, four homers, 12 hits, four walks and a hit batsman.

You can just imagine how ready Texas State’s hitters were for game two. These longtime Sun Belt juggernauts were on the ropes, off their game with their leader gone.

Instead, Stewart allowed only two hits and one earned run with no walks and five strikeouts in three innings. She left with UL leading 11-2.

Then in game two, Stewart made it smooth sailing again for anxious Cajuns fans with a dominating four-hit shutout with no walks and 11 strikeouts.

“It was a really good feeling,” Stewart said. “I always knew I was capable of pitching like that, but it was different this time. I knew I had to come through for my teammates. I just felt the unity out there. I felt we were as one on the field.

“It was a great feeling. It’s not that we weren’t playing for each other all season, but I really had the feeling that we were playing for each other like never before.”

And for their coach, obviously.

“It really was (different than normal),” Stewart said. “We were competing for him. We wanted to make him proud. We wanted everyone to know that we still have the same goals and that we weren’t backing down, especially now.”

But that increased passion and focus was also for the coaches who were filling in, and for the treasured UL softball fans who made the trip to San Marcos, and for those back home who couldn’t.

“Everybody stepped up,” Stewart said. “The leaders on the team took the younger girls under their wing when we were struggling. All the coaches stepped up big. It was great. Everybody was doing something to make sure we continued to do everything that Coach Mike had taught us.”

Time will tell if Stewart’s fantastic weekend will be the turning point in her career, or simply an heroically clutch performance when her team and entire UL softball family needed it most.

Truthfully, it’s not like she was struggling before Texas State, though.

For the season, she’s 6-0 with a 0.82 ERA, giving up just 21 hits, five walks and striking out 45 in 34.1 innings. You don’t get those numbers all in one weekend.

As a freshman, however, she was 0-2 with a 9.48 ERA in 10.1 innings.

Ask her to detail how much progress she’s made since last season and Stewart just laughs.

“I wasn’t close to being ready last year,” she said.

And while her previous outings this season may have dwarfed her limited production from a year ago, they also didn’t match the level Stewart reached this past weekend in San Marcos.

“I just had a different mindset,” she said. “I pitched free, like I should have been doing all along. In the past, I would think, ‘I was too timid on that pitch.’ I wasn’t timid at all.”

Stewart said she knows that “mindset” battle is an ongoing process, but that hard work this past summer is paying off.

“I stayed this summer and worked on getting more athletic, my drills and a lot on my spin,” she said. “My spin was not good at all last year.”

Stewart revealed that all the technical aspects of the pitching weren’t on top of her mind, though, as she worked in the circle in San Marcos.

“I was just focused on competing and fighting for my teammates,” she said. “It wasn’t about my release (with change-up that was so effective). It was about trying to be dynamic.”

And Stewart’s convinced that no matter how long their head coach needs to be away, that fight Lotief taught them won’t leave them when he needs them to have it most.

“He’s going to fight through it the more he sees us fight,” she said, “so we’re going to fight pretty hard.”

Georgia State at UL

Series: 5 p.m. single game Friday; Noon doubleheader Saturday.

Site: Lamson Park.

Records: Ga. St. 23-11, 5-4; UL 27-5, 12-3.

Radio: KPEL 1420 AM.

2014 series: UL won 8-3, 4-2, 13-0.

Top hitters: Ga. St. – C Ivie Drake (.500, 11 HRs, 44 RBIs); CF Ashley Christy (.402, 3 HRs, 18 RBIs); SS Taylor Anderson (.378, 5 HRs, 19 RBIs); 3B Callie Alford (.377, 10 HRs, 36 RBIs); RF Megan Litumbe (.364, 10 Hrs, 33 RBIs); UL – DP Leandra Maly (.433, 4 RBIs, 5 SBs); C Lexie Elkins (.407, 17 HRs, 41 RBIs); 2B Haley Hayden (.406, 10 HRs, 32 RBIs); RF Aleah Craighton (.374, 6 HRs, 26 RBIs); LF Shellie Landry (.356, 14 HRs, 42 RBIs).

Top pitchers: Ga. St. – Katie Worley (7-4, 4.22, 88 IP, 63 BB, 93 K); Taylor Thorpe (11-1, 4.25, 84 IP, 37 BB, 33 K); UL – Jordan Wallace (11-2, 1.90, 88.1 IP, 38 BB, 134 K); Christina Hamilton (8-2, 2.46, 57 IP, 16 BB, 40 K); Alex Stewart (6-0, 0.82, 34.1 IP, 5 BB, 45 K).