Cajun softball comes up just short of World Series

by Dan McDonald

The breaks didn't go UL's way in NCAA Super Regional softball play, with two one-run losses ending the Ragin' Cajun season one step short of the Women's College World Series. A run here, a hit there, and UL's softball team would be on its way to Oklahoma City and the Women's College World Series.

But, just like the Ragin' Cajuns made the big plays during last week's Baton Rouge Regional to stay alive in pursuit of a national championship, it was Michigan that made the big plays over the weekend to punch a World Series ticket and leave the Cajuns agonizingly short of their sixth such trip.

The host Wolverines took a 2-1 decision in the deciding third game of the Super Regional round in Ann Arbor Saturday, after the Ragin' Cajuns had forced the winner-take-all game with an earlier 5-0 win.

Those came on the heels of Michigan's extra-inning 4-3 victory, one the hosts claimed with a walk-off home run by Ashley Lane on Friday, meaning it was a one-run difference twice that has the Cajuns at home when WCWS play begins this Thursday.

"This stings right now," said Cajun coach Michael Lotief only minutes after Michigan did the traditional Gatorade bath and lap around the field. "It's going to sting them for a little bit. But when they walk away from it, they're going to be proud ... and I'm certainly proud right now."

Lotief had already figured out that his squad made it way to the nation's final 16, something it has now done three times in the last four years, and made its 23rd NCAA Tournament appearance in the last 24 years. And with one break somewhere along the line, they'd still be adding to that final 47-15 record.

"It seemed like every game came down to one call, one at-bat or one pitch," Lotief said. "But that's this game, especially when you get into the postseason. I'm proud of how these kids fought and never gave up."

They could have given up in the first game when they trailed 2-0 in the seventh inning, only to have Brianna Cherry lace a two-run homer to send that game into extra innings. They could have given up when they came agonizingly close to adding to a 1-0 lead in the third game, only to see Michigan score the two runs the Wolverines needed only minutes later on a two-run double by Lane, who was the hero for the second straight day.

Instead, they turned to a senior group that had eight hits on the final day, and to sophomore pitcher Jordan Wallace, who pitched 13 innings on Saturday and came within one pitch of an effort reminiscent of her 21-inning shutout effort in the Baton Rouge Regional the previous week.

Wallace allowed three hits in the Saturday-opening shutout, striking out 11, and didn't hesitate in taking the ball for the day's second game only 40 minutes after the conclusion of the opener. And, again just like the previous weekend, she threw in a hostile environment, against a capacity crowd of 2,293 at UM's Alumni Field.

In all, she checked the nation's number two offense on nine hits and fanned 16 in the two games.

"She's a fighter, and unbelievable battler," Lotief said. "She's prepared all year for this and she wasn't going to back down. She's just a warrior."

Wallace, who finished at 32-9, will also have two more years to add to the 59 victories she's tallied in her first two years. But the Cajuns will have to replace five seniors outfielder Cherry, catcher Sarah Draheim, shortstop Nerissa Myers, first baseman Matte Haack and utility player Megan Waterman and four starters for next year.

The four-year players in that group (Haack transferred in after beginning her career at Arizona) accounted for 196 wins.

"They're a special group," Lotief said. "They've been our heart and soul, staying together all those years."