Louisiana's Ragin' Cajun softball team open up their 2011 regular season schedule this weekend, as the Cajuns host the 25th Annual Louisiana Classics Tournament, at Lamson Park. On this week's edition of "Coach's Corner", UL co-head coach Michael Lotief talks about how many UL players have played at less than 100% health, with his "No Pain, No Gain" blog. View this week's segment, below.

NO PAIN, NO GAIN by Michael Lotief            02/10/2011 Coach’s Corner

 “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.  It may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish.  Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.  Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunity of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him.  And this decides whether he is worthy of his suffering or not”.  --- Viktor Frankl

The adverse situation that gets the most scrutiny in the press seems to be how a player endures or comes back from an injury.  Dealing with an injury or playing through pain or going through prolonged rehabilitation, TESTS the player’s will and persistence and character and discipline, and gives them an opportunity to learn and grow as a person.  What I celebrate in athletics often times is the STRUGGLE. 

 There is a great line in the movie A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, “It’s the HARD part that makes it special”; in other words, THE STRUGGLE or the PAIN.  If competing at the highest level were easy, then everyone would do it.  Ask yourself: Do you welcome the hard?  Are you strong?  Can you overcome adversity?  Part of playing college softball is answering the challenge of adversity!

 Playing through pain and discomfort is something athletes are expected to do if they can.  There are the legendary stories in pro sports of NFL Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood playing through the 1979 play-offs with a broken leg or Willis Reed of the NY Knicks, after missing Game 6 of the NBA finals against the Lakers after he tore a muscle in his right thigh in Game 5, played Game 7 basically on one leg and the Knicks won the Championship.  On the flip side is Jay Cutler who did not play most of the 2nd half against the Packers in this year’s NFC Championship game.  Bears’ “fans” who saw Cutler walking into a restaurant and up some stairs headed to dinner for a post-game meal, scoffed that “he should’ve toughed it out and played” or “tried to come back” because “this is to go to the Super Bowl”.  

 During my 11 years with the RAGIN CAJUNS Softball team, we have had some “true WARRIORS” who answered the challenge.  Tiffany Hebert getting “spiked” and taking over 20 stitches to her thigh and playing again a week later; Joy Webre , who caught EVERY game for 4 years through bruises and nicks and pain; Jill Robertson, who redshirted to come back from a torn ACL her senior year to finish her career in the World Series (earlier in her career she battled back from a shoulder surgery of her throwing arm); Codi Runyan who had low back surgery and came back and played her senior year; Lacy Bertucci and Lana Bowers who both played with a torn labrum in their throwing shoulders.  Danyele Gomez’s throwing shoulder sublaxed her freshmen year and kept  popping out of place whenever she swung or threw for the rest of her career and she wore a brace and withstood the pain every swing or throw.  Katie Smith is coming back from a torn ACL this upcoming season and has shown the discipline to rehab religiously and the grit to return to her pre-injury skill level.

There are countless others who played through pain and injury.  In order to wear the RAGIN CAJUN jersey, you must be TOUGH (mentally and physically).  You must welcome the HARD.  You love the STRUGGLE.  You understand, NO PAIN, NO GAIN!  The three most “talked about” WARRIOR stories are: Brooke Mitchell, Melissa Verde and Ashley Brignac.

Mitchell turned in her best performance of the 2003 season at the NCAA Regional in Fullerton, CA.  She opened the regional with a no-hitter of San Diego State; then dominated the top-seed Cal-State Fullerton with a two hit shutout; and pitched the Cajuns to victory in the regional final against Oklahoma State and their 1st team All-American pitcher, Lauren Bay.  Mitchell entered championship Sunday of the regional having allowed just three hits over 21 innings while striking out 28.  The Cajuns were 1 game away from the College World Series and because we were undefeated, the Oregon Ducks would have to beat us twice to advance (this was the old format – 8 teams in a Regional, winner advances to the WCWS).  Mitchell suffered an inflamed bicep in her pitching arm in game one and we pulled her after just 10 pitches.  She was grimacing in pain.  Remember, this is a kid who was hit in the head with a batted ball that required 10 stitches and was back on the mound within 10 days.  She is tough; a kid who always wanted the ball (in the 2004 season became one of only five players in NCAA history to record 500-plus strikeouts, ending the season with 524K over 315 innings and led the NCAA with 45 victories which was the fourth-most single season wins in Division 1 history).  Despite the risk of further injury and in extreme pain, Mitchell came back in game two of  the 2003 Regional vs. Oregon and tossed a complete game victory to send the Cajuns to the WCWS.  A true WARRIOR!

During the 2009 season, Verde tore her ACL against the US Olympic team in March and opted to forego an immediate, in season surgery in order to play the final two months of the season with her leg braced up.  And the at-bat that will be remembered by Cajun fans forever – in the Baton Rouge Regional versus LSU, scoreless in the third inning, LSU opted to intentionally walk Holly Tankersly to load the bases.  Verde took the second pitch of the at bat and hit a towering grand slam over the right field wall to give the Cajuns a 4-0 lead and propel us to College World Series.  Despite the significant injury, which would require surgery at the end of the season, and despite the pain and instability in her knee, she showed her toughness, courage, determination, grit and focus not only to overcome such a devastating injury, but also to feel the enormity of the moment and get it done.

During the 2009 season, Ashley Brignac tore her labrum in her pitching shoulder.  Remember, Brignac had just experienced the thrill of the World Series in 2008 and beating the #1 national seed, Florida.  Her pitching line vs. Florida was a season high 15 strikeouts, 6 hits, 2 runs.  The next season, she felt the pop in her throwing shoulder.  Despite the pain (unable to throw overhand) she managed to pitch the Cajuns to the two most crucial wins of the season – the elimination game win vs. FIU in the Sunbelt Conference Tournament (2-0) where she threw a one hit shut-out.  The other was the elimination game win vs. Texas State in the NCAA Regional (5-0), she tossed 6 shut-out innings; increased her streak of consecutive innings without allowing an earned run to 72; she fanned 10 batters and had a perfect game through the first four innings.  Brignac was able to compete at a high level; overall, she boasted a team and conference best ERA of 0.44, allowing no earned runs in Sun Belt Conference play; she held opponents to a meager .124 batting average – all with a torn labrum in her pitching shoulder.  After the 2009 season, Brignac underwent shoulder surgery to repair the tear and redshirted  and did her rehabilitation during the 2010 season but never missed being present with her team at every game.  She was always there for her teammates; she did the filming of the game and toted the equipment or did “whatever” to help her team.  Whether healthy (Florida) or “banged up” (FIU/Texas St.) or rehabbing/unable to play (2010), she always gives her ALL to help her team WIN.  We are all looking forward to her return this season!

All of the kids who go through their college careers as RAGIN CAJUNS are fierce competitors; every bit as much as a football player or any of their male counter parts.  In my opinion, there is no contradiction between playing with physical intensity and then being the consummate Christian and perfect lady off the field.  When you walk onto the softball field, you are embracing a set of rules that demands competitive fire.  You can be powerful on the field, and a thoughtful and kind person in real life.  Playing with fearless competitiveness is not unsportsmanlike.  Being competitive means fully engaged in the game, which is actually a sign of respect for your opponent and the game.  To give anything but your best every pitch is shameful.  When you play “easier” against an inferior opponent or when you let up when you are winning by a large margin or if you take it easy against your friend in practice that actually is demonstrating a lack of respect to the game and to your opponent and to yourself.

 Trust me, I want my little girl (14 years old now and not so little any more) to grow up to be the perfect lady when she is in church or at school or at the prom (that is, if her momma lets her go), but when she is on the field or in a competitive situation, I want her to know how to compete.  I don’t want her to ever be bullied or taking advantage of or be discriminated against because of her gender.  I want her to be confident and full of self-esteem because she has encountered adversity in athletics and knows how to overcome it.  I want her to be persistent and tough and a fighter when adversity knocks on her door.  I don’t want her to be co-dependent.  I don’t want her to require to be coddled for every failure or broken fingernail.  I want her to know how to accept the responsibility to manage her own world, which involves dealing with adversity and struggle and PAIN. 

 I know that the college softball experience PREPARES our players for any adversity that the game of life may bring their way.  I know that by enduring all the PAIN and embracing the struggles during their college softball careers that they GAIN confidence and self-esteem and that the softball experience teaches them the life’s lessons to know how to fight and overcome and WIN!

PRACTICE NOTES:  Opening tournament is this weekend.  The bleachers are finished. Despite the chair backs not getting here on time, the crew was still able to temporarily install bleacher bench backs throughout the stadium.  Everybody will have there seats.  Of course, when the chair backs arrive, they will be installed permanently ASAP and the bench backs will be removed; also, there are public bathroom facilities on the backside of the locker room that are functional; and the concession stand will be operational; all we need now is for the weather to cooperate; LET’S PLAY BALL! …..Sarah Drahiem (Soph., Flower Mound, Tx) will start the season at catcher; she appeared in 32 games/started 14 last season, hit .222 with 1 HR….Gabby Bridges (Sr., Lafitte, La), returns at 1B; she hit .314, 17 HRS, 55 RBI, .617 Slugging % last season;….as you learned from last week’s blog, Nerissa Myers at SS; Meagan Granger (Teurlings High School graduate, Jr) will start at 3B;…. Erikka Murphy returns in LF and Christi Orgeron in RF but will also play multiple positions; Taryn Broussard (Texas A&M transfer/So) will be the DP.  Multiple kids will see action early in the season:  Natalie Fernandez (Fr/2B and OF), Jensen Tydelski (So/CF), Katie Smith (Jr./CF), Brianna Cherry (So/LF), Paige Cormier (Jr/2B), Jennifer Martin (So/IF), Meagan Waterman (So/U), Callie Philen (So/C).  The NCAA has adopted new bat standards (98 mph); many of the bats used last season are now banned; there is a new, NCAA bat approved list; lastly, there is a new bat testing (on-site) procedure.  IMO, the new rules will eliminate a lot of the “cheap” homeruns seen over the last few years and will also tone down some of the “massive” homeruns too.  Look for the offensive side of softball to become more “traditional” again – speed/slapping/short game/situational hitting, etc.  BUT, the true power hitters will still have plenty of opportunities to “drop bombs”.  I do not think the new bat standards will affect us because our bats have always been at the 98 mph threshold.  FYI, over 50% of the bats tested at last year’s WCWS failed/were not legal/were over the 98 mph standard, so this is a significant change for a lot of teams and hopefully, “evens” the playing field …  Also, the illegal pitch call (leaping – both feet in the air) will still be a point of emphasis by the umpires.  Ashley Brignac (Jr/P) is ready to go. Big issue for the Cajuns this season is who will emerge as the #2 pitcher…. Christine Hamilton, FR., Rosepine HS, Leesville, La., Ms. Louisiana Softball her senior year in high school, Shelbee Rodgers, FR, Central H.S./Baton Rouge or Allie Chenault, FR./Sweeney, Tx, Paige Cavallan SO/Beau Chene H.S.  

 P.S. Join us next week on www.espn1420.com for the next Coach’s Blog – tune into espn1420 on the radio or internet for the broadcasts of the softball games with Stevie P., the “stinking genius”; check out our fan page on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/Ragin-Cajuns-Softball-Fan-Page/141642419230558; and see all the game summaries at http://www.ragincajuns.com.