UL softball team headed back to where it started

by Dan McDonald

The first time the Ragin' Cajun softball team ever made it to the Women's College World Series, the road ran through Ann Arbor, Mich. This week, the Cajuns will be trying to match that success. The UL softball team has been to the Women's College World Series so often now five times that it's hard to remember the time not so long ago that the Ragin' Cajuns were fighting for a first-ever appearance.

In fact, for a long time, it appeared the dream never would come true.

The Cajuns played three home NCAA Regionals when they were among the favorites, and lost out every time on the verge of making that trek to Oklahoma City.

It took UL going on the road ironically, to Ann Arbor, Mich., the site of this week's Super Regional where the Cajuns and Michigan will fight for a World Series berth for UL to finally "survive and advance."

Long-time coach Yvette Girouard remembers it well.

"We played so uptight at home in those regionals," said Girouard, who founded the Cajun program in 1981 and coached the squad through 1999. "We needed and wanted to change our karma."

Several members of this year's Cajun squad weren't born when UL won three games in the 1993 Ann Arbor Regional to advance to their first World Series. But they will be hoping to add to that legacy, and will be returning to that same field exactly 20 years later in an effort to make a sixth World Series trip.

UL (46-13) meets No. 8 national seed Michigan (48-10) in the best-of-three NCAA Super Regional round at 1 p.m. (CDT) Friday on ESPNU, and at 11 a.m. (CDT) Saturday on ESPN. If a third game is necessary, it will follow Saturday's game at approximately 2 p.m. and will also air on ESPN.

Both the Cajuns and the Wolverines won three straight games in last weekend's Regional round to advance to the head-up meeting. UL, which was unseeded but was the nation's highest-rated RPI team not hosting a regional at No. 17, won three games in the Baton Rouge Regional including two pulsating wins over No. 9 national seed LSU. Michigan wasn't as pressed, winning its three regional games on its own Wilson Complex field by a combined 13-1 score and beating a solid Cal team twice to advance to the round of 16.

"That's a really good team," said Cajun coach Michael Lotief, whose squad has won 27 of its last 29 games. "They're well coached, very athletic and they don't beat themselves."

This year's Cajun team has won 11 in a row on opposing fields. The Cajuns of 20 years ago were also road-seasoned on the way to a 57-7 record still the second-most wins in school history and that's part of the reason Girouard was almost relieved that the 13th of her 20 UL teams was headed north for postseason play.

The Cajuns had hosted regionals in 1990, 1991 and 1992 but came up short each time, losing to Florida State twice and to Oklahoma State once in elimination games.

"We wanted to win it so badly at home," Girouard said. "From the minute the program started being successful, we had the best fans in the country as far as being into the game and being a real factor in its outcome. We wanted to win it for Lafayette, but we couldn't quite get over that hump."

UL beat Bowling Green 7-3 in that Ann Arbor opener and then beat the hosts twice by 6-5 and 2-1 scores to advance to Oklahoma City, where the Cajuns eventually joined powerhouses UCLA and Arizona in the double-elimination tourney's final three.

Girouard has two vivid memories of the ground-breaking 1993 regional trip, both involving close friends she worked with during her Cajun career.

"Mike Hess (UL's athletic groundskeeper at the time) brought some dirt from Lady Cajun Park and gave it to the team the night before we played," Girouard said. "He told them they were still at home if they had that, and before the game they all threw a handful of dirt at their positions.

"It was cold up there, and Nelson Stokley (then Cajun football coach) let us borrow the football team's long jackets because we didn't have any. The Michigan people were amazed that the football program would let the softball team use them, but Nelson was one of my closest friends. I remember everyone out there celebrating with those coats on."

Girouard admitted that the matchup was more favorable in the 1993 Ann Arbor trip than those home regionals, mostly because she had some solid hitters and a dominant pitcher in now-Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame member Kyla Hall.

Twenty years later, UL has solid hitters with the team ranking in the nation's top 11 in four major categories scoring (sixth, 6.80 runs per game), slugging (ninth, .534), home runs (10th, 1.45 per game) and batting average (11th, .330). The Cajuns also has a dominant pitcher in sophomore Jordan Wallace, who threw 21 shutout innings and allowed only seven hits in being named MVP of the Baton Rouge Regional. Wallace (31-7, 1.73) is sixth in the nation in wins and fourth nationally in strikeouts (356).

"If you can get a dominating pitcher and get one or two hitters to come through for you, you can win in the postseason," Girouard said. "That's what we did. That was the old six-team regional and it wasn't easy, but it was like finally the gorilla was off our back and we got to the World Series.

"It was kind of surreal. I had to keep telling myself that we finally did it. I had to pinch myself a couple of times."