Did UL’s softball team deserve better than a No. 14 national seed? The Ragin’ Cajun faithful believes that, and it’s hard to argue with them after their dominant performance in the NCAA Regional round at Lamson Park.
The Cajuns ran their record to 52-4 with three easy wins in the regional, outscoring its opponents 23-5 and never trailing in three games -- the first against out-manned Mississippi Valley State and the last two against a highly-regarded Stanford team from the softball-strong West Coast.
UL, now holding the nation’s best record heading into the NCAA Super Regional round, made things look surprisingly simple all weekend. Even in the regional-clinching 6-2 win over the Cardinal on Sunday, the Cajuns were rarely threatened and led 5-0 before Stanford managed a couple of sixth-inning runs off starter and senior Ashley Brignac.
On came freshman Jordan Wallace, who almost had a run-rule win over the Cardinal in the 9-3 winners’ bracket final on Saturday. Wallace retired the final four batters she faced, inducing two ground balls and a fly ball that Brianna Cherry gathered in center field for the clinching out to begin the celebration for the stadium-record 2,729 in attendance.
“This place is unbelievable,” Brignac said. “To know that we got another shot to play in front of these fans was very exciting. I thought Senior Day might have been our last day on that field, but to play again in the NCAA Tournament felt unbelievable.”
Only one of the 16 regionals drew anything close to the six-session total of 14,097 fans that came out to Lamson Park. Louisville was close, but those Cardinals had intense state rival Kentucky in their field … and once UK was out, Louisville’s Sunday crowd dipped to 1,000 less than the Cajuns as they fell to Michigan in that finale.
“This isn’t an easy place to play in,” said Stanford coach John Rittman, a statement that doesn’t get made about 99 percent of the softball facilities in the country. No one in the country packs them in like the Cajun program, and they’re not just in the park … they’re loud and boisterous in a sport where the word “crowd” is a misnomer at even the “name” schools.
Late in Sunday’s game, when the Cajuns held a commanding lead after home runs by Christi Orgeron and Sarah Draheim, fans sitting in the outfield began a “Ragin’” chant that drew a quick “Cajun” response from those in the grandstand. The cheers went back and forth for nearly half a minute … long enough to realize that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the country. No other program even has enough fans sitting in outfield seats to generate that kind of involvement.
“When they started doing that, from the infield to the outfield, it just gave you chills,” Brignac said after running her season record to 23-3. “We had amazing support. They packed the house.”
That packed house turned out to be the final home appearance. The 14th-seeded Cajuns are matched against third-seeded Arizona State for next weekend’s Super Regional, and ASU's winning of the "if necessary" game 4-0 over Syracuse late Sunday night means the Cajuns will head for Tempe for the super regional round.
Even with UL on the road, it’s not a typical #3 vs. #14 matchup. In fact, UL already holds a 9-2 win over the defending national champion Sun Devils in the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, Calif., in mid-March. Obviously, that’s more than two months ago and both teams are very different now, but the Cajuns still haven’t lost to a team outside of Sun Belt Conference play this season (an astounding 28-0).
Sunday’s win followed the pattern that had been in place most of the season. The Cajuns got two runs in the first inning on an RBI single by Orgeron that plated Katie Smith – who had three straight three-hit games in the regional – and a Cherry sacrifice fly that score Nerissa Myers.
Two innings later, Orgeron – who struggled in the Sun Belt Tournament and in the regional’s first two games – blasted her 22nd home run of the year for a 3-0 lead. Orgeron also added a sacrifice fly in the sixth that plated Natalie Fernandez with the game’s final run, giving the senior three RBI on Sunday and a nation-leading 94 this year. Only four players in NCAA history have ever had 100 or more RBI in a season – Orgeron with 101 last year, and three Arizona players.
“The greatest thing about this team is that I never feel the pressure that I have to hit,” Orgeron said. “Some teams have one hitter that they rely on, and if they don’t get the big swings or the big hit, they are going to lose. That’s not this team. This is a team. This is one through nine.”
“They have speed at the top of the lineup, power in the middle of the lineup and speed at the bottom of the lineup,” Rittman said. “That’s a very good team we lost to this weekend.”
The Lamson Park faithful would agree.