Pitcher Jordan Wallace is giving fans something extra to pull for this season.
After 13 games the UL Ragin’ Cajuns softball team remained undefeated and ranked 6th in the country. It had outscored opponents 110-4 and would spend the next two weeks (seven games) on the road. A bitter cold front was approaching. The 1,738 fans who turned out on George Washington’s birthday to watch the UL/McNeese game could choose from a number of good reasons to be at Lamson Park. Mine was Jordan Wallace.
A year ago Wallace might have been the one reason everyone was there. As a freshman in 2012 she won 21 consecutive games to start her career, finished 27-2 and was Sun Belt Freshman of the Year. In 2013 she led the conference in wins (32), innings pitched (255.1) and appearances (41). Her 382 strikeouts ranked third in the nation. She tossed three shutouts at the Baton Rouge NCAA Regional and was named MVP. Then at the Ann Arbor Super Regional she came within a few outs of beating Michigan twice in one day and advancing UL to the World Series.
“For two months she was the best pitcher in the country. No question,” says UL Coach Michael Lotief. Then in 2014 she wasn’t.
Softball pitching is never easy, even if in her first two seasons Wallace made it seem so. The margin for error is thin, measured in inches above and on either side of the plate. To find the strike zone consistently with enough velocity and movement to retire batters places tremendous demands on a pitcher’s body and psyche.
In 2013 Wallace averaged 10.48 strikeouts per seven innings and 2.69 walks. Last year she maintained her strikeouts at 9.33 but struggled with control, walking 7.54 batters per seven innings. The result was her ERA ballooned from 1.70 to 4.04 and her innings pitched dropped from 255.1 to 102.1.
“Hard to know why,” says Lotief. “Physical, mechanical, mental. Everybody speculated. I don’t know what happened.” But he has an idea. “Expectations, especially in this program, can be overwhelming. For those two months she was the best. It’s normal to expect performances to continue to ascend. Instead we should have a greater appreciation about how everything had to line up to succeed at that level. We should appreciate those two months.”
Wallace herself remains puzzled by her disappointing season. “I don’t know why. Why I didn’t make it. Why I didn’t prepare better.”
“Jordan took it hard,” continues Lotief. “Female athletes don’t want to disappoint their teammates and their fans. That’s usually their first reaction.”
Wallace does know what brought her back. “Having a team, a sisterhood. The encouragement was a continual, constant ‘we believe in you.’ They still had my back.”
“Teammates had to express to her that she did not disappoint,” says Lotief. “We didn’t love her because of her success but because of her work ethic, how she continued to show up and work through it.”
A large sign in the softball meeting room reads: “We succeed because we are not afraid to fail.” As a member of the UL softball team, according to Lotief, “You are not going to be judged by how you do on the field but by who you are, how hard you work, how much you care.”
For Wallace, last year “helped me grow as a person. When you’ve reached the bottom and pull yourself out of it, it’s a good feeling. I know that a loss or giving up a home run is not as bad as that. [Even though] expectations are high, I don’t feel any pressure. As long as I put everything on the line I know I’ve put my team in the best position.”
So how has Wallace performed so far in 2015? Going into the McNeese game her record was 5-0, her ERA was 0.00, and she was the season’s first Sun Belt Pitcher of the Week. Her strikeouts per seven innings were 13.07 and walks only 1.29. Was she back?
Against McNeese Wallace struck out the leadoff hitter on three pitches. But the next three Cowgirls got hits (one a two-run homer), then a walk before an inning-ending double play. Coach Lotief had seen enough. After strong outings the two previous days, one-hit shutouts of Hofstra and Missouri State, Wallace was not at her best. Christina Hamilton, the season’s second Sun Belt Pitcher of the Week, came on in the second inning, held McNeese to one additional run and the Ragin’ Cajun hitters closed the deal after six innings 11-3.
The 2015 Ragin’ Cajuns are a good mix of experience and youth. Shellie Landry (.386 7 HR 20 RBI), Haley Hayden (.383 7 HR 14 RBI) and Lexie Elkins (.293 6 HR 14 RBI) are familiar faces off to good starts. New additions include Aleah Craighton, who leads the team at .489 with four home runs and 17 RBIs, and DJ Sanders at shortstop (.333).
With Wallace and Hamilton in the circle, two seniors with big game experience, another trip to Oklahoma City could come soon. However the season plays out, Ragin’ Cajun fans have a fun team to follow and in Jordan Wallace a special player to cheer for.
John Mikell believes energy-efficient air conditioning and football are the keys to Louisiana’s future. He lives near Grand Coteau.