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Softball: The Myers effect

UL's Nerissa Myers, shown here swinging in a game against Southern Mississippi, has returned with a vengeance at the plate. 
UL’s Nerissa Myers, shown here swinging in a game against Southern Mississippi, has returned with a vengeance at the plate. / Leslie Westbrook/The Advertiser

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser

It was late in February, and the UL Ragin’ Cajuns softball team was working at UL’s Leon Moncla Indoor Practice Facility.

When the session moved back to Lamson Park, and All-American shortstop Nerissa Myers realized most of her teammates had already headed over there, she had to catch up.

“I was late, as usual,” Myers said.

Which is funny, because on the field she’s so rarely tardy – reacting to a ball, swinging her bat or getting a jump on the bases.

So Myers tried to shortcut through the batting cages, but they were locked at the far end, which meant she had to go back through the indoor facility.

That’s when she stepped in a hole outside, snapping one of her ankles.

“The first thing that went through my mind,” Myers said, “was, ‘Oh, crap.’ ”

Cajuns coach Michael Lotief had the exact same reaction when he heard what had happened.

“If you had to pick out somebody you didn’t want to go down,” Lotief said, “it would have been her.

“When a freak accident like that happens, first you wonder if it’s real,” he added. “And then, once you find out it is, because it’s happened in a freak way you realize it’s just meant to be.”

Or, at least in Myers’ mind, meant to be overcome.

She was told the broken ankle would keep her out about four weeks.

But because it happened when it did she could have opted not to return, taken a medical redshirt and played a hopefully uninterrupted senior season in 2014.

For a couple weeks, the decision was pondered, debated and weighed.

“If I didn’t have the range, or if the team couldn’t get better,” Myers said, “then there was no point in coming back.”

Lotief evidently figured it would be in Myers’ best interest to wait until next season, when she’d be fully healthy.

But Myers, from Petal, Miss., preferred going out this season.

She was ready academically, had been mentally prepared to do so and really want to exit with four fellow seniors – Sarah Draheim, Megan Waterman, Matte Haack and her own cousin from Petal, Brianna Cherry.

That’s what ultimately made a hard call so simple.

“I love the seniors we have,” Myers said. “I love this class. I love the way they fight.

“And to watch them go on without me on the field, and to see how they competed – they never missed a beat. We may have lost a couple games, but the way they fought during that time period – it was just amazing to me.

“I just couldn’t see myself waiting any longer. It would have been nice to have waited longer (and been fully healthy), but I just wanted to get out there and help my team any way I could.”

So Myers returned at what Lotief had just a few days earlier described as “65 percent,” convinced her bat was ready and her range at short would suffice.

She was oh-so-right.

Myers had a home run in her first at-bat after the injury, part of doubleheader day at North Texas in which she produced three homers – including one grand slam – and eight RBIs in a pair of victories over the Mean Green.

In three fewer games than before her absence, Myers has raised her batting average from .395 to .413, hit four more home runs and driven in six more RBIs.

She admits her timing isn’t back to normal, and she isn’t able to run the bases quite like she had previously.

But her batting average and power numbers both are way up – she’s hitting .452 since returning – and it’s largely because Myers never lost contact with her team.

“I think a lot of it came with traveling with the team (while injured), staying into every pitch,” she said. “Just because you’re not on the field doesn’t mean you don’t have a role.

“You have to help the younger kids along the way, and all of that helped me to stay in every pitch. It allowed me to continue my mindset.

“I got to see a lot of young kids come into their own, and that was great to watch,” Myers added, “because it’s only going to help this program flourish in the end. It was difficult, but it helped the team be stronger along the way.”

The doubleheader victories at North Texas were the fifth and sixth games in what is now a 16-game winning streak for the 34-11 Cajuns, who play host this weekend to Troy in a three-game Sun Belt Conference series that gets under way with a doubleheader Saturday.

In addition to Lotief’s coaching through rather rocky times this season and sophomore Jordan Wallace’s super-stingy pitching of late, there seems to be no doubt just how much impact Myers’ return has had during UL’s recent run of success.

“I definitely think a big part of it was Nerissa Myers coming back,” first baseman Haack said when asked about the streak. “That definitely helped unite this team. You know, she brings a lot – defensively, and offensively.”

Yet Myers suggests her absence might have helped the Cajuns even more than her presence throughout March would have.

“We grew from it,” she said. “We grew from that injury.

“Samantha Walsh (who filled in at short) stepped up, and now her bat is coming along. Jordan (Wallace) stepped up, and now she’s pitching wonderful. Sarah (Draheim) stepped up; she’s hitting four-something (.413) with (a team-high 12) home runs. Brianna (Cherry) has stepped up. I watched these people grow in a matter of a month, just because one person was out.

“So,” Myers added, “I think it was the best thing for the team.”

Myers, who helped lead the Cajuns come within one victory of a place in last season’s Women’s College World Series, suggests such is the case even though it came at her own expense.

It’s no great shock to Lotief, for one, that that is what his shortstop truly believes.

“When she got here, she struggled making the transition. She struggled with the game. She struggled with college life. She struggled with being away (from home),” he said. “And now … I watch how she’s grown, and the person she is, and the woman she is.

“When we went through our adversity, she was the one who stood strong,” added Lotief, who resigned as head coach at the start of the season, only to return a short time later. “She was the one that was a voice. She was the one that went to fight.”

The Cajuns lost only one of their first nine games and two of their first 15 to open the season, but they dropped seven of their first 10 and nine of their first 14 after Myers got hurt.

During the entire stretch she was out, they went a very ordinary 9-9 – four of the losses coming to nationally ranked teams, including three to Texas.

Since then, the benefits of her presence go far beyond the fact they’re 12-0 with her back in the lineup.

“She’s a winner, and she’s a fighter,” Lotief said. “Really and truly, she is the best shortstop in America. And it’s not only because of her arm, or because of her range. It’s because of her heart, and her intensity, and how hard she plays the game.

“She’s been the heart and soul of this team the last couple years. I mean, really she took the team over, basically, last year. The defense runs through her. She sets the tone offensively. She gives some stern lectures when they’re needed.

“She’s just a good kid,” he added, “who understands how to compete, and understands how to play the game at a high level, and has tremendous courage.”