A ‘Thank You’ To 2018 UL Softball
The 2018 college softball season came to an end for the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns on Sunday, and it's time now for me to say "thank you" to them.
Why do I think I owe them thanks?
Well, a few reasons; with the biggest being that I believe I'll always remember this group as the one that may have helped save this incredible program.
And I'm serious as a heart attack.
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.
The most recent obstacle that this program faced may have been its most difficult of all, however.
Back in 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.
Six 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.
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 last year's 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 this 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 this season, and won 14 games that were decided by one run, or that they won in extra innings.
That was the thing that made this teams 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 Sunday night's NBA Playoffs, the Golden St. Warriors beat the Houston Rockets by 41 points. 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 this 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 the lead? Yes. But I don't want to focus on that now, or during the offseason.
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, thanks to what the players and the coaching staff did this year, along with the fans that supported them.
I just want to focus on an incredible year, and a very bright future.
To close, I just want to say "thank you" to the 2018 Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns.
"Thank you" for showing us what competing is.
"Thank you" for representing the university and the area in such a classy fashion.
"Thank you" for the memories.
"Thank you" for saving the UL softball program as we know it.