Prepared Cajuns headed for NCAA Baton Rouge regional

by Dan McDonald

The reaction of UL's baseball team upon learning its NCAA Regional slot this weekend in Baton Rouge was business as usual. But the Ragin' Cajuns have been good at taking care of business this season.  The reaction was so muted, so matter-of-fact, that one would have thought UL's baseball team had just received successful spring-semester test scores, instead of their NCAA Regional assignment Monday.

In a way, that's what they did, with a No. 2 seed in this weekend's Baton Rouge Regional the validation for one of the biggest turnarounds in the program's history.

The Cajun team, fresh off a runner-up finish in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament which they hosted over five days last week, gathered back at "Tigue" Moore Field Monday to watch the NCAA baseball bracket selection show on the new scoreboard video screens.

When UL's name popped up as the second-seeded team at the LSU-hosted regional, there was some clapping and only a couple of cheers. There was no wild yelling or whooping, no back-slapping. Most important, there were no sighs of relief, since the berth wasn't in doubt and the site was expected.

"It's kind of where we wanted to go," said sophomore catcher Michael Strentz after ULL (41-18) found out they'd be joining LSU's host Tigers (52-9), Sam Houston State (37-27) and Jackson State (34-20) in the field for the double-elimination tournament..

The Cajuns meet Sam Houston at 7 p.m. Friday in the first round, following LSU's 2 p.m. contest against Jackson State. Games are also set for 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with a 7 p.m. if-necessary game on Monday night.

Part of the restrained reaction was the fact that the Cajuns were a virtual lock into the 64-team field and weren't sweating out the selection. Even though they didn't win the Sun Belt Tournament title and the league's automatic bid, losing in the finals 16-8 to Florida Atlantic Sunday at Moore Field, UL took a No. 24 RPI ranking into the Sun Belt tourney and went 3-1 including two wins over No. 16 RPI South Alabama. Their only loss was to a No. 34 RPI FAU squad that has won 11 straight games.

"It's a reward for their body of work," said Cajun coach Tony Robichaux, who will take his ninth UL team into regional play. "Last night, 230 or so teams in the country cleared out their lockers and we didn't."

The other reason for the muted response was the assumed assignment in Baton Rouge. With no regional sites in Texas, and the next-closest regional host being Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss. the only other regional host within the NCAA's recommended 400-mile radius of Lafayette it was almost a given that UL was headed for Alex Box Stadium for the fifth time since 1990. It will, however, be the first Baton Rouge Regional visit since 2002, with the Cajuns playing in regionals in New Orleans (2005), College Station, Texas (2007) and Austin, Texas (2010) since their last postseason trip to LSU.

"It's where we thought we'd get paired up," said junior outfielder Dex Kjerstad. "It's my first time to be a part of this, so it's exciting for me. We're all pretty much focused on the regional and nothing else right now."

It's a first for virtually every member of the Cajun squad. UL's last trip to NCAA postseason play was in that power-packed Austin Regional where the Cajuns beat Rice before losing to Texas and Rice. Only one player on this year's roster, injured and redshirting pitcher Chase Traffica, was on that team.

"We're a young team, but we've still got some age," Robichaux said. "We've got some redshirt sophomores and we've got the junior college guys, some who played for a national championship at LSU-E, and the good thing is that all of those guys are coming back next year. That's big for us to keep this thing going and not have a two-year break like we've had."

UL's roster includes only two seniors in pitchers Ben Frith and Kendall Mayer, who have combined for only 29 2/3 innings this year. The 10 Cajuns who make up UL's regular lineup rotation includes four juniors, five sophomores and true freshman shortstop Blake Trahan.

The Cajuns have not faced first-round opponent and Southland Conference at-large selection Sam Houston State, but UL did go 7-1 against Southland teams this year. UL did face potential second-game foe LSU during the year, falling 11-2 at Moore Field back on Feb. 26.

"I like that we're getting another shot at them," said Kjerstad,  the Sun Belt's leading hitter (.398) who ranks sixth nationally in hits (94) and has 12 homers out of the leadoff spot. "We're definitely a better club than we were then ... we've grown a lot. That was early in the season, and we've overcome a lot since then."

"We're 100 percent better," Strentz said of comparing the late-February Cajuns to now. "Everyone was so wound up last time and everybody pressed. We weren't calm and relaxed like we are now, and we're going to just keep doing our thing."

"We saw a lot of good pitching the rest of the year, a lot like we saw that night," Robichaux said of the earlier LSU loss. "The Sun Belt was a lot better than last year, and that got us ready."

Four Sun Belt teams made the field, tying the league's all-time high, with UL, South Alabama and FAU number two seeds and regular-season co-champion Troy a No. 3 seed.

The Cajuns are tied for second nationally with a .323 team batting average and lead the country in home runs (72) after hitting only 18 last year. That offensive attack is the biggest reason UL is one of the nation's most improved teams record wise, going from 23-30 to this year's 41-win season while reaching the conference tournament finals and finishing one game out of the Sun Belt regular-season title.

The Cajuns have also had eight straight double-digit hit games and hit .355 in the conference tournament.

"We know we can hit," Kjerstad said. "We just have to get everything clicking like we've been doing the last few weeks."