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Why Louisiana coach Matt Deggs feels Ragin’ Cajuns baseball is ‘not where this program needs to be’

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, May 31, 2021

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When UL baseball exited from the 2021 Sun Belt Conference Tournament, coach Matt Deggs wasn’t pleased.

At all.

“I felt like we could have really made some noise in this tournament,” Deggs said.

“I wish we would have executed a little bit better.”

After beating Texas State and Appalachian State in pool play, the season ended for UL – No. 1 seed in the West Division – with a  3-2 loss in 11 innings to Georgia Southern in the semifinals at Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery, Alabama.

South Alabama, the No. 1 seed in the East, beat No. 2 East seed Georgia Southern 10-4 in Sunday’s championship game, sending the Jaguars to the NCAA Tournament for the 14th time since 1996.

UL (32-23) hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2016, when it ended a run of four straight trips that included Super Regional appearances in 2014 and ’15.

“We’re not where this program needs to be,” Deggs said.

“I think we’ve taken a step toward that. But this is a program that needs to be fighting for a Regional and a Super Regional every year."

The Cajuns won five of eight Sun Belt series, losing ones with South Alabama, Little Rock and Texas but beating Texas-Arlington and Troy late to become SBC West co-champs.

The Cajuns also won won a pair with Louisiana Tech. But they lost a series with TCU, were swept at Southern Miss and lost mid-week games against LSU and Mississippi State.

“We’ve got to improve in just about every facet. … I like the way that we completed, played, worked,” Deggs said. “But we’ve got to keep getting better.”

MLB Draft could impact UL pitching

To do it, the Cajuns – depending on how hard they’re hit in July’s MLB Draft – may have to restock on pitching.

Connor Cooke, a first team All-Sun Belt pick, and TCU transfer Spencer Arrighetti, an All-Tournament Team selection, were UL’s top two starters.

Cooke (7-3, 2.03 ERA) and Arrighetti (7-6, 3.12) both could be lost to the draft, as could  Brandon Talley (eight saves, 1.59) and reliever Jacob Schultz.

Cajuns find Riola’s arm at tournament  

Perhaps the best thing to come out of the Sun Belt Tournament , though, could be the fact the Cajuns found a potential pitcher for 2022 in Sam Riola.

Riola was UL’s starting shortstop for its opening series against Tulane, when Bobby Lada was unavailable. Lada, eligible to play in 2022, settled in at short and Riola was starting at third base before sustaining a broken thumb.

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With two pins in the surgically repaired thumb, he was unable to hit, eliminating a return as a position player. But Riola worked on his pitching during the down time, something he did previously at Iowa Western Community College, where he closed, and at Bethel University.

He made his only two pitching appearances at the Sun Belt Tournament, striking out four of the 11 batters he faced and posting a 0.00 ERA over 3.1 innings.

Deggs said Riola, who recently had the pins removed, has “great command, intent, attack – and he’s got three pitches.”

‘A fun group to watch’

In the field, All-Sun Belt designated hitter Ben Fitzgerald, an All-Tournament Team pick who hit .293 with a team-leading 12 home runs and team-high 31 RBIs, could return if he’s not drafted. Starting corner outfielders Carson Roccaforte and Connor Kimple also are eligible to return.

The Cajuns will lose starting center fielder Brennan Breaux, a St. Thomas More High product who transferred to UL after two seasons at LSU from 2016-17.

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But with Breaux (.311) gone they’ll have the option of returning Tyler Robertson (.268 with eight home runs), who moved to third base midway through the season, back to center field.

UL also must replace catcher Drake Osborn, the Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year. A graduate transfer from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Osborn hit a team-high .337.

But the Cajuns have been developing catcher Julian Brock, and they recently signed Colby Smelley, who moved from pitcher to catcher at Shelton State in Alabama and was hitting .435 going into the Junior College World Series.

All of which leaves Deggs as hopeful for the future as he was frustrated Saturday.

“We’re a fun group to watch. We’re exciting,” he said. “But we’re still a ways away from where we need to get to.”