Conference play starts this weekend. The Ragin’ Cajuns are destroying opponents, but the season is about to change.

The beginning of the season is going swimmingly. The Cajuns are riding a ten game win streak, and they’re outscoring opponents 100-15 in that stretch. The story enters a new chapter with conference play though, and it’s fitting that the Cajuns begin with South Alabama.

Year in and year out, the Jags are the Cajuns’ main competition for Sun Belt titles. Even though they come in this season sporting a 10-8 record, including a few glaring losses, Michael Lotief isn’t letting his team take them lightly. Just because they’re down doesn’t mean they’re not still dangerous.

If you think South Alabama is going to be an easy series, you clearly haven’t talked to Coach Lotief.

“That didn’t come out of my mouth,” Lotief said carefully. “I don’t know who’s saying that, but whoever’s saying that is not watching what’s going on.”

Better to prepare for the team that always plays you close than banking on their current cold trend to continue.

South Alabama’s record might not make them the Cajuns’ peer, but Coach Lotief refuses to disrespect an opponent that played them tight over the last few years. You won’t find any posterboard material or news clippings here to fire up your team, Jags fans. Mike is too smart for that.

“The rivalry over the years has been back and forth,” Lotief said. “There’s been some great games, and they’re highly competitive.”

Not only is the South Alabama series a rivalry, more importantly, it’s how the Cajuns will set the tone for the rest of their conference slate.

Sometimes, the best way to approach a season is to put the blinders on. In softball, where the season is so long, often the team with the shortest memory has the most success moving forward. Coach Lotief is making sure his team approaches their full plate one bite at a time, and the approach is working.

It helps having leadership from within. Lexie Elkins is leading with her bat, and Hayley Hayden and Shellie Landry are providing a lot of vocal fire. Don’t forget about Kelsey Vincent, who is putting up career numbers for the second straight year, thanks to the approach Lotief created. With one of the biggest series of the season, Vincent felt like it was just another week.

“I didn’t even know conference play started this soon,” Vincent said earlier this week. “I know in conference you get a bigger target on your back because everybody wants to beat you.”

Everybody in the conference knows the Cajuns sit atop the throne, and everybody wants to knock them off. Week in and week out, opponents will throw their best punch. It’s the Cajuns’ job to keep delivering knockouts in response.

The early success this season set the bar awfully high. They’re mercy ruling teams left and right, which spoils fans to a certain extent.

After clubbing Southern Miss for 30 runs and 11 homers in a double-header last Saturday, the Cajuns only beat them 6-2 on Sunday. As crazy as it may sound, some fans actually responded to the result with concern. Associate Head Coach Chris Malveaux reminded people this week, and rightfully so, that not every game is going to end in a blowout, especially in conference play.

“Believe it or not, those teams are trying to win too,” Malveaux pointed out with a sense of humor. “As fun as it may be, not every game is going to be seventeen to whatever it is.”

The true tests are coming. The nonconference slate proved to be a power display for the Cajuns, but they can’t rest on that moving forward. They have a chance to set the tone for the rest of the conference slate against South Alabama, and the best teams always find way to improve, no matter who the opponent is.

There’s a good chance the Cajuns could continue to crush opponents early in the conference schedule, but there’s only 18 games separating them from a date in Gainesville, Florida. If the Cajuns want to hang with the top team in the country, their preparation can’t dip due to their current competition level. We’ll see where both teams stand in a couple weeks, when the entire softball world will have their eyes on a seismic softball event.

It all starts with South Alabama this weekend. As Coach Lotief said, conference play is a different beast to tame. Luckily for the Cajuns, they carry a lot of firepower and are ready to defend their spot at the top of the food chain.