How Good Is UL Softball Heading Into 2019?
Are the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns legitimate contenders for the 2019 Women's College World Series?
In my opinion, there's no question they are.
Now, notice I say "contenders". I don't think you show any disrespect for the game by just predicting an appearance in the WCWS, but I believe they are easily one of the top 15 teams in the country entering 2019, and that makes them legitimate contenders.
Why am I asking this question now?
I think it's a good time to talk softball after outfielder Sarah Hudek announced this week that she was transferring from Texas A&M to Louisiana.
First, however, let's not act like it's a surprise that the UL program is a legitimate College World Series contender. The program is one of the more special, not only in softball, but it all of college sports. It just continues to thrive, despite obstacles being thrown in its way.
The first obstacle the program had to overcome was just finding its way. When Yvette Girouard helped build the program from scratch beginning in 1981, nobody could ever dream that it would be in an NCAA Regional just nine years later.
The second obstacle the program had to overcome was the addition of softball to the major conferences in 1997, specifically the SEC and Big XII.
When former Ragin' Cajun All-American Stefni Lotief took over for coach Girouard in 2001, a lot of people thought the glory days were over, because there was so much more competition.
Those people were wrong, as UL has been in an NCAA Regional every year since 2000, one of only 9 programs in the nation to accomplish that feat.
Think about that for a second; only nine program in the entire country has played in an NCAA Regional every year since 2000, and Louisiana is one of them.
You can't get to the College World Series without getting to a Regional first.
Anybody that doesn't view the UL softball program as one of the top 25 in the country hasn't followed the game closely enough over the past quarter-century.
The most recent obstacle that this program faced may have been its most difficult of all, however.
Last November, Michael Lotief, one of the best coaches of all-time, was dismissed.
This isn't about off the field issues however, it's about on the field, and on the field, would happened could have been disastrous.
People asked me if I thought the program would be okay, and for the first time ever, I was unsure.
I'm fairly optimistic, but I figured that there was at least a small chance that the program would never be the same.
Do you think I was/am overreacting?
I don't. As a matter of fact, I don't believe many really understand how bad it could have been.
12 months months ago, the program had no coach, and there was talk about a mass exodus of players.
What would have happened if, say 15 players had left?
That would have been the equivalent of getting the NCAA death penalty, and the program maybe never would have recovered.
It would have taken at least 5 years to return to relevancy, likely 10, and maybe never at all.
Once a mid-major program like UL takes a step back for multiple years, it's incredibly hard to get back to where it was. Just ask Louisiana Tech, who had one of the best women's basketball programs in the nation in the 1980's and 1990's, appearing in ten Final Fours over the two decades. Since 2002, the Lady Techsters have no Elite Eight appearances, and haven't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2011.
I can't even imagine what the young ladies were going through. Here it was, early December, end of the semester, and they didn't even know who their next coach was going to be, with the season just two months away.
Most probably put feelers out to other schools, gauging their interest, just to protect their respective futures.
I wouldn't have blamed them.
It had to be painfully difficult for a lot of players, not knowing where they'd be in a matter of just a couple of weeks.
In December, the university hired Gerry Glasco, who had only two months to hire a staff, secure a fantastic fan base, bring in a couple of transfers that could help, and get as many players to stay as possible.
As it was, three players did leave, including two All-Americans and the 2017 Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year.
Those were huge losses. Texas A&M and Oregon are likely to take a step back this season, because they both lost so many talented players, who elected to transfer.
What it meant was that the Cajuns would begin the 2018 without their starting first baseman, second baseman, shortstop, centerfielder, right-fielder, designated player, and the top two pitchers from the 2017 squad.
Three of those players were All-Americans, and five were all-conference selections.
Because of that, because of the question marks, and because of the fact that the new coaching staff barely had any time to implement any of the new system in a whirlwind offseason, many predicted that Louisiana would take a major step back last season.
What they needed was just for the season to start.
They needed to start having fun again.
And when it did, they did.
Sophomore right-hander Summer Ellyson struck out a school record 20 batters in a 7-inning contest in the third game of the season against Evansville, before Louisiana defeated Eastern Illinois, 14-10, in a thrilling 9-inning game, and we got our first glimpse at the special season that was about to be.
The Cajuns were ranked in the top 25 all season, finished the regular season in the 25 of the RPI rankings, and secured big wins over the likes of Florida, Oregon St., and Texas St.
Louisiana earned a berth to their 20th-consecutive regional, as well as their 28th in the last 29 years.
And oh yeah; they had to overcome the loss of their starting second baseman, Brittany Holland, who very well may have been the team's top power hitter, to a knee injury in the first week of the season.
Were they perfect? No. I think they had a number of flaws. But guts wasn't one of them.
The Cajuns were 8-3 in extra inning games last season, and won 14 games that were decided by one run, or that they won in extra innings.
That was the thing that made that team so special on the field; their intestinal fortitude.
Should we expect athletes and teams to play hard?
Well, yes, but unfortunately, that's just not how it goes most the time.
In last year's NBA Playoffs, the Golden St. Warriors beat the Houston Rockets by 41 points in one game in the Western Conference Finals. In the second half, you could see the Rockets just going through the motions, waiting to fight another day.
And we may be partially responsible for that as a society which doesn't condemn "tanking" enough.
Some people think it's "smart" of the Cleveland Browns to tank in football, or was smart of the Philadelphia 76ers to tank in basketball.
If you're one of those, you have no right to complain when an athlete doesn't show that he/she doesn't care enough.
Sports is about competition. Without it, there is no sports.
And let me tell you; did last year's UL softball team compete!
They fought everyday!
And nowhere was that more evident than in the Baton Rouge Regional, in which they lost their first game, 1-0, to Houston, before defeating Fordham and Houston to advance to their 11th-straight regional final.
Trailing LSU, 4-0, Louisiana came back to win in 10 innings, which was fitting for this season, 5-4, before losing in the title game 3-1.
Was there a missed call in the 6th inning that gave LSU the lead? Yes. But I don't want to focus on that, as it is part of the game.
I want to focus on one of the gutsiest bunch of players I've ever had the privilege to see play.
I want to focus on a group of young ladies, along with a coaching staff, that helped keep alive the great tradition of this proud program.
I want to focus on the future, which now looks incredibly bright.
Now, because of last year, they're expected to win in 2019, and rightfully so.
They finished one win away from a Super Regional appearance last season, and return 7 starters, including pitcher Summer Ellyson, shortstop Alissa Dalton, third baseman Kara Gremillion, and first baseman Kourtney Gremillion, who all garnered All-Sun Belt Conference honors last year.
Yes, the Cajuns will open 2019 be without the services of outfielders Kelli Martinez, Brittany Rodriguez, and Kalyn Watts, who all graduated, but they're replacing them with outfielders Keeli Milligan and Hudek, who both played in the College World Series for Texas A&M back in 2017, and Raina O'Neal, who belted 12 home runs as a freshman for Texas Tech in 2017, which led the Red Raiders, and ranked second in the entire Big XII.
The Cajuns also bring in Bailey Curry, who hit a .362 as a freshman for Toledo last season, to go along with 14 home runs and 46 runs batted in, and Julie Rawls, who hit a .296 for Northwestern in 2018, to go along with 10 home runs and 36 runs batted in.
And those are just the highlights.
Last year, Louisiana finished one win away from a Super Regional appearance, and were ranked in the Top 25 all season.
Next season, with coach Glasco's system fully in place, and with all the talent coming back, and coming in, there are obvious reason to expect them to be even better.
Now again; the game has a way of humbling you, and they still have to get in done on the field, so there are no guarantees, but this team has all the ingredients to be special in 2019, featuring pitching, power, speed, defense, and depth.
They have all the ingredients to be a really special team.
Are there question marks?
Sure there are; like can they handle the expectations?
I think a bigger question may be who is going to be the pitching compliment to Ellyson?
Sophomore Casey Dixon and freshman Kandra Lamb are both talented, but still untested.
Now, Ellyson redshirted her first year in the program, then pitched sparingly as a freshman, before turning into the staff ace she was last season, so she had time to develop, which may all be that Dixon and Lamb need to emerge.
Nowadays in softball, the elite teams have two aces, like Oklahoma did last season, with Paige Parker and Paige Lowery. Florida even had three in 2017, with the likes of Kelly Barnhill, Delanie Gourley, and Aleshia Ocasio, so while I think the Cajuns can be awfully good next season, and while I like the future of both Dixon and Lamb, failure to have another pitcher emerge, or an unfortunate injury to Ellyson, could keep them from getting where they need to get.
Almost gone are the days when one pitcher could put you on her back and make you a national title contender. Again, most elite teams have at least two pitchers, and some even have three.
Right now, the Cajuns only have one.
Now, Dixon and Lamb each have the talent to become really good, but seeing as how they're both inexperienced, the compliment to Ellyson is certainly the biggest mark on the team.
Can you imagine if say a Giselle Juarez, who transferred from Arizona St. to Texas, had joined the Cajuns?
Coach Glasco, who would love to have a entire pitching staff, could have had two aces, two possible future aces, and Carrie Boswell, who most college programs would love to have.
I get it; Juarez didn't come to UL. I don't even think the two parties ever talked. My point is that Louisiana is one quality arm away from not just being a College World Series team, which they may be anyway, but a team that could match-up against anybody in the country, with an opportunity to play in the WCWS Championship Series in Oklahoma City.
Glasco, who was a perfect hire last year, has put this program back into a position where they are legitimate College World Series contenders, and he's one arm away from being even more than that.
So, are the Cajuns legitimate contenders for the 2019 Women's College World Series?
When you think about it long enough, and judge everything by the large sample size, it actually is kind of a silly question.
Of course they are!