Cajuns take regional, bragging rights

LAFAYETTE, La. -- The kings of Louisiana college baseball, at least for this year, are not the six-time national champions from LSU.

While Houston was unceremoniously ending LSU's spring with a 12-2 rout Monday at the Baton Rouge Regional, Louisiana-Lafayette managed to keep alive the best season in school history by edging Mississippi State 5-3 to advance to the NCAA super regionals.

"We've been grinders from day one," Louisiana-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux said shortly after clinching the program's first opportunity to host an NCAA super regional, which arrives this weekend against Ole Miss. "We knew after that first game was tough. ... we just couldn't get the critical hit at the critical time. And then from that point on, went back to being who we are, actually: nothing but grinders."

It certainly required some grinding for the Ragin' Cajuns (57-8) to make it to this point. They were all but left for dead when Jackson State's Vincent Anthonia used an effective changeup to keep one of the nation's most potent lineups at bay in Friday's regional opener, leading the Tigers to a stunning 1-0 upset of the nation's top-ranked team.

The Cajuns were one loss away from elimination, and their prospects didn't seem too bright because Mississippi State -- a resident of the mighty SEC -- was cruising on the other side of the regional bracket.

But Robichaux's Cajuns raged convincingly after their initial shocking loss, which subjected the tournament's No. 6 overall seed to national ridicule. The Cajuns started their comeback with a 9-2 clubbing of San Diego State on Saturday, won twice Sunday -- first destroying Jackson State 11-1 in their rematch and then handling Mississippi State 14-8 to force Monday's deciding game. And then they jumped ahead of Mississippi State 4-0 before holding on for a 5-3 victory in Monday's clincher.

"Our M.O. is kind of just hunting the fastball to try to neutralize that, and it's hard to do that when the guy's only throwing 81," Cajuns senior Ryan Leonards said of the loss to Anthonia and Jackson State. "So we tried to overcome that, and we had a tough time with it [against Jackson State], but we came out [against San Diego State] and I think we did a good job of it."

The turnaround occurred almost immediately after the Jackson State defeat. Cajuns catcher Michael Strentz blasted a three-run home run in the second inning of the San Diego State game and Louisiana-Lafayette's offense never slowed down the rest of the way. In their four consecutive wins to clinch the regional, the Cajuns outscored the opposition by a combined 39-14 margin.

"That was great," Louisiana-Lafayette starting pitcher Carson Baranik said of the early lead that came on Strentz's homer, "and we also got the fans into it and we could really feel them out there, especially in that kind of heat."

The Cajuns' fan support might be the most obvious way that Louisiana-Lafayette resembles its in-state rival 55 miles eastward in Baton Rouge.

Just like the enormous crowds that flock to LSU's Alex Box Stadium, the fans at M.L. "Tigue" Moore Field make their presence felt throughout the game. The loud and rowdy bunch provides a distinct advantage when Robichaux's team is playing at home, he said.

"I handle pitchers, and when you try to get a hitter out with adrenaline, the board might show he's hitting .216, but right at that moment, him on adrenaline, you can throw a ball two feet off the plate and they can hit it off the wall or out of the ballpark at Alex Box Stadium. I believe that with our crowd, too," Robichaux said. "I believe they can give you adrenaline, and that's important because in a long season, you'll hit nights where you're flat, you're tired and you can feed off their energy on that night, where if you're on the road, you've got to supply all the energy."

The fan attribute that the two programs share, Robichaux said, comes from the festival culture that exists within the state. Few programs' attendance numbers rival Louisiana's top two programs and their fans don't mind braving the heat and humidity in order to support their teams.

"I tell people all the time, 'You can copy our facilities, but you can't copy our people.' To me, that's the most unique thing here is our people, and I think it starts with the Louisiana culture," said Robichaux, who has led the Cajuns to 10 NCAA tournament appearances in 20 seasons as the program's head coach. "I grew up in Crowley and we host the Rice Festival. In Louisiana, we have so many festivals: the Duck Festival, the Rice Festival, the Crawfish Festival, the Boudin Festival, the Rabbit Festival, the Heritage Festival. When you get up in Louisiana and the sun comes up, we have a festival."

Most of the players from Ole Miss (44-18) have visited the Box -- where LSU has led the nation in total attendance for nearly 20 years running -- so they won't be intimidated when they enter the 3,755-seat venue at "The Tigue."

But the combination of Lafayette's boisterous fans and an offense that could compete with any SEC club was enough to send Mississippi State packing Monday. In fact, that recipe helped the Cajuns build a 5-1 record against SEC clubs this season, as they also took two of three from Alabama and beat then-No. 1 LSU 4-1 in a rain-shortened game early in the season.

That visit to LSU was almost certainly helpful, as there is no better environment to prepare for the grind of NCAA tournament play. It might be enough for Robichaux to send a thank-you note to LSU coach Paul Mainieri should the Cajuns advance to make their second College World Series appearance.

"I go there on purpose because I can't invite 10,000 people to practice and scare my freshmen," Robichaux chuckled. "So we like to go there because it helps us feel what a regional's going to feel like, it puts us in a hostile crowd. Because to win there, you've got to be able to handle the crowd and just play baseball."

The Cajuns did just that after the Jackson State loss put their season on the brink. Now it's time for them to play catch-up -- but not with the tradition-rich baseball program in Baton Rouge that will forever be their measuring stick. No, Robichaux is thinking of a team that's a bit closer to home: the ULL softball team, which just returned home from a trip to the Women's College World Series.

"Our girls are good," Robichaux said. "They got a 6-seed just like we did and they went on and won a regional here and won their super regional here and went on to Oklahoma City, so we're trying to catch them."