Cajuns ’embrace’ upcoming Sun Belt challenges
Coming off a challenging first half of the season, the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajun softball team’s steady progress and resilient attitude has prepared the young team to enter Sun Belt Conference play beginning March 22.
“A lot of the non-conference schedule prepares us,” said head coach Michael Lotief. “We played a really tough non-conference schedule – Oklahoma, Michigan, Texas and North Carolina. We went on the road a little bit. We went to Florida. We also went to Gulfport, Miss.
“All those things are trial runs for our kids to get into a position, face different pitchers, play in different venues, be challenged by different circumstances to see how they react and learn from it.”
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette currently sits at 24th in NCAA rankings, with a record of 17-6-1.
In a three-game series last weekend, the Cajuns fell to the Oklahoma Sooners in game one but came back to defeat the defending national champions in both games two and three.
After taking on the Sam Houston Bearkats Wednesday at home, UL Lafayette will begin Sun Belt Conference play this weekend as the team travels to Georgia State University for a three-game series March 22-23.
Asked whether conference play comes with more pressure, Lotief replied that the pressure to win is always present, but in the end, it’s just a game.
“There’s other things going on in the process besides just worrying about winning,” he said. “The expectation to win and compete for a conference championship is always there in this program. We understand it and embrace it.
“When you embrace it, you’re taking a risk, but it’s not really pressure,” he continued. “There’s no fear of failure or disappointment. It’s – take a risk, embrace the challenge and go for it.”
The South Alabama Jaguars and Western Kentucky Hilltoppers remain the top competitors in the Sun Belt Conference this season.
South Alabama is currently ranked 16th in the nation with a return All-American pitcher, and Western Kentucky, the defending conference champion, has 90 percent of its roster back, Lotief said.
The Cajuns also face new challenges in conference play this year, as the Sun Belt added three new teams: the UT Arlington Mavericks, Georgia State Panthers and Texas State Bobcats.
“With the new people in our conference, we’re excited to see how they compete as well,” said Natalie Fernandez, a senior utility player for the Cajuns.
Fernandez leads the team with a .467 batting average, 35 hits and 33 runs this season. She begins the batting order and is followed by freshman Haley Hayden, who boasts a team-high nine home runs and 29 RBI.
Echoing her coach’s earlier statements, Fernandez said the Cajuns’ tough non-conference schedule has prepared the team to enter conference and post-season play.
“I feel really good,” she said. “I’m excited about the way this team fights and competes. It’s fun to be on this team that fights all the time.”
Fernandez is a veteran player on this year’s young team. Out of the 27 members, 22 are either sophomores or freshmen.
“Last year, because we were older and had a lot of returners, it was more about pressing and competing and pedal to the metal,” Lotief said. “This year the mindset becomes learn, grow, get better, keep working and stay at it. That’s our mindset the whole year, no matter what happens.”
As for the players’ performance so far this season, Lotief said he’s proud of their hard work and their ability to learn from the game and bounce back after disappointing losses.
“The losses are painful because you always want to win, but when you see the bigger picture and understand the process and what we’re working for, there’s a meaning behind it,” he said. “When we get to conference, they’ll be in a position to handle whatever comes at us.”