Cajun softball once again NCAA regional champs

by Dan McDonald

Jordan Wallace posted yet another shutout, and because of that UL's softball team is back in familiar territory in the NCAA Super Regionals. BATON ROUGE Once again, UL Lafayette's softball team leaned on Jordan Wallace's strong right arm Sunday in the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional.

And, once again, the Ragin' Cajuns are on their way to the NCAA Super Regional, their fourth such trip in six seasons.

Wallace made a first-inning lead stand up the rest of the way, stranding 10 LSU base runners in a four-hit 1-0 shutout win over the Tigers that propelled UL into the national round of 16.

And the sophomore did it with flair while the standing-room-only crowd at Tiger Park was in an uproar by working out of a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the top of the seventh. After a one-out walk, a bloop single and a bunt single, Wallace retired LSU's three and four hitters in the lineup for the clinching outs.

"We knew we'd gotten those hitters before," says Wallace, who threw 21 innings without giving up a run in the three regional wins. "Coach just told me to win this pitch, win each pitch, and that's all I was thinking about."

"She kept me calm," Cajun coach Michael Lotief said of Wallace in the postgame interview area. "Otherwise, I would have been all over the place. There's a lot of scenarios in that situation, and a lot of them aren't good."

LSU pinch hitter Alex Boulet a product of nearby Notre Dame High in Crowley grounded out to lead off the top of the seventh, but Wallace walked nine-hole hitter SImone Heyward and gave up a bloop single to left-center field by A. J. Andrews before Jacee Blades' perfect bunt died on the third-base line to load the bases and bring up freshman power-hitter Bianka Bell (.349, 12 HR, 48 RBI).

"At that point, it's just get them out any way you can," Wallace said afterward.

Bell went after the first pitch, a curve ball, and popped it up to Wallace for the second out. Wallace then fanned Allison Falcon swinging for the final out and set off the Cajuns' celebration.

"The freshman (Bell) took a good hack at it, so credit to her," Lotief says. "She (Jordan) challenged her with probably the pitch she was looking for."

The 117-pitch effort, coming on the heels of a 142-pitch 3-0 win over Northwestern State Friday and a 106-pitch 3-0 win over LSU on Saturday, sends the Cajuns (46-13) to Ann Arbor, Mich., for next week's Super Regional round. The No. 8 national seed Wolverines (LSU was the No. 9 national seed to set up that Super Regional matchup) beat Cal 3-1 on Sunday to take its own regional crown without a loss.

Dates and times for that Super Regional round will be announced on Monday. The Cajuns played in Super Regionals at UCLA in 2010 and Arizona State in 2012.

Ironically, the first of UL's five trips to the Women's College World Series came through Ann Arbor, exactly 20 years ago. UL won the Michigan regional in 1993 (before the Super Regionals were begun in 2005) to advance to its first trip to Oklahoma City.

With Sunday's win, UL is now 9-0 in its last nine games in Baton Rouge and 6-0 in its six games played at Tiger Park, all of them in NCAA Regional play. The Cajuns have allowed only one run in the six NCAA wins at Tiger Park.

The Cajuns, who are 28-2 in their last 30 games, scored in the first inning for the third straight regional game Sunday when Nerissa Myers led off with a double off the left-field wall. She moved to third on a fly ball to right by cousin Brianna Cherry, and scored when Sarah Draheim's ground ball went through the legs of Bell at shortstop for the 1-0 lead.

"At batting practice, coach told us to take our shots," Myers said afterward of the leadoff extra-base hit. "3-and-1, I thought what better pitch to sit on and take a shot."

Myers was off on contact on Draheim's ground ball and would have likely scored even with the error (Draheim was credited with an RBI), a run that put her into the No. 20 position by herself in the all-time NCAA career runs list. Myers, who led the country in runs scored last year, has scored 342 runs in her career.

Few in the park thought that would be the only run of the game, or that the Cajuns would get only one more hit, a slap single back to the box in the second inning by Leandra Maly. Otherwise, Tiger senior pitcher Rachele Fico was dominant for the second straight day, not allowing a Cajun past first base over the final five innings and retiring the last nine batters she faced.

In 13 innings against UL, Fico held one of the country's top hitting clubs to four hits. Two of those were homers that accounted for all the Cajun runs in Saturday's win.

"She's one of the bravest people I know," says LSU coach Beth Torina, whose team finished at 42-16. "For that kid to go out there and stay focused with what she's going through, with her dad fighting (her father is in the final stages of terminal brain cancer), I can't imagine what that takes."

But Wallace was equal to the task. The Tigers had many more opportunities than Wallace's Saturday win when she allowed only two runners to reach second base, but Wallace stranded runners in all but one inning and ended five of the seven innings with infield popups. Wallace, who had 10 strikeouts in Saturday's win over LSU and 11 against Northwestern on Friday, had only four on Sunday, but her outfielders only touched the ball four times in the finals win.

"We would have loved to score more than one run," says Myers, who scored five of UL's seven runs in the regional (the only two she didn't score were Saturday's two home runs). "Some days it's a pitcher's game and some days it's a hitter's game, but if we get it to 1-0 or 2-0, we have all the confidence in the world in Jordan."

"What that kid withstood today was phenomenal," Lotief says. "She's just a sophomore and last year she was our number two, and she went through her share of struggles. The crowd tried to intimidate her today and their hitters made adjustments to take her out of her comfort zone. And as the game went along she lost some velocity. But she's just a warrior."

Wallace threw 365 pitches in the three regional games, and has now allowed one run over her last 35 innings pitched. If the Cajuns had lost Sunday's games, the teams would have turned around and played the "if necessary" game, and Wallace would have likely started again if she'd had her choice.

"She'll tell you she could have gone back, but I don't know," Lotief says. "Our mindset coming in was to take care of it in the first game, and it was critical that we find a way to make that one run stand up. We knew that was our shot."

That shot held up, even though LSU had runners in scoring position in six of the seven innings including the last four.

"A lot of that is luck sometimes," Lotief says. "The game rewarded us today and we know that."