Ragin' Cajuns' diamond in the rough sparkles
There isn't a team in the country that wouldn't want Christi Orgeron in the middle of its lineup these days.
That Louisiana-Lafayette was one of the only schools that felt the same way five years ago reveals quite a bit about how the Sun Belt program has maintained its place among the elite in college softball amidst a landscape increasingly dominated by big conferences and big budgets.
On the short list for most major individual accolades, including USA Softball Player of the Year and the Lowe's Senior Class Award for contributions on and off the field, Orgeron entered the week as the nation's leader with 83 RBIs. Her lead on her next closest competitor, BYU's Delaney Willard (64), is among the most commanding in any major statistical category. She's on pace to drive in at least 100 runs for the second season in a row, a staggering feat given the limited duration of the college season and a mark just three players before her reached even once, none since 1996.
Not bad for a player who drew recruiting interest from Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana Tech and, well, that's about it.
Orgeron didn't play travel ball, the most familiar gateway to big-time college softball, until she was 17 years old. Growing up in New Orleans, she played in a recreational league in the city and for her high school team, in addition to swimming and playing soccer. She figured she would play soccer or softball in college somewhere, but the specifics of the recruiting world were a little lost on her. When someone told her one day that a college coach was on hand to watch one of her softball games, she was initially confused. Coaches came to you?
"I just figured you showed up at college and tried out for the team like you did in high school," Orgeron recalled.
What Louisiana-Lafayette co-coach Michael Lotief saw was the sort of 5-foot-11 athlete who doesn't come along every day for any program, let alone one competing in recruiting territory shared by the SEC and Big 12. What he heard when he talked to her was someone whom he described as "intrinsically motivated" and who wanted a chance to push herself and a school with a good nursing program. Fortunately, he had both to offer. The swing Lotief could teach and tweak, which he did through an initial redshirt season followed by a debut season in which she earned Sun Belt Freshman of the Year.
"When she started having success, that never changed who she was," Lotief said. "She kept working, she kept striving, she kept her foot on the gas pedal. She kept dreaming, she kept believing, she kept expecting more. That's her personality. And really, I think that's what defines being a Ragin' Cajun, too. That's what our program is all about. We've got 25 to 30 kids just like her, and that's what we do around here. We try to take kids who have a dream and are maybe overlooked a little bit and just come out here day by day and just work hard. And whether we fail or whether we achieve, get up the next day and do it again with a positive attitude."
Louisiana-Lafayette has been to the Women's College World Series five times, most recently in 2008. Among schools outside the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, only Fresno State and Cal State Fullerton have been more often. That tradition started with Yvette Girouard, who got the program off the ground in 1981 and led it to three of the five World Series appearances. The Lotiefs, first Stefni and soon thereafter husband and co-head coach Michael, kept it going by consistently finding regional recruiting gems, that is, players like Orgeron who aren't nearly as good as they can become.
"You have to be willing to show up day by day, you have to be willing to get blisters on your hand and just swing and swing and fail and watch video and do it again," Michael Lotief said. "Some people call that work. Great hitters call that fun. Great hitters love to hit; that's what they love to do. Some people like to go fishing and ride in a boat and some like to listen to music or watch movies. Hitters like to hit."
Orgeron isn't the only one who fits that description for the Ragin' Cajuns. With a familiar blend of top-of-the-order speed in Katie Smith and Natalie Fernandez and power from Orgeron, Nerissa Myers and Arizona transfer Matte Haack, among others, the team leads the nation in scoring. Between a familiar name in fifth-year senior Ashley Brignac and freshman Jordan Wallace, the pitching holds up its end of the bargain. And if a 9-2 win against Arizona State earlier this season is any indication, it's a team ready to make a run at another World Series.
Orgeron was there the last time, even if she wasn't on the active roster. She wants one more taste of it.
"I love that it's such a cutthroat competition at that point, and it's almost like anyone can win at any point," Orgeron said. "It's just the environment that surrounds it, the fans get so excited, it's a whole different ballgame once you get to Oklahoma City."
It's a good place to have a hitter everybody wants on your side.
San Diego State (25-19, 6-0 MWC, No. 38 RPI): While the Mountain West is in a state of flux with just five teams as it awaits new members Fresno State and Nevada next season, it still gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Aztecs own a résumé that could gain them entry to the postseason regardless, but sweeping a three-game series from New Mexico in Albuquerque last weekend puts them in the driver's seat for the automatic bid. Sophomore Hayley Miles finished the week with five home runs between the New Mexico series and a midweek win against San Diego, fueling an offense that continues to grow in the power department for a program rarely known for that.
Texas State (29-15, 12-2 Southland, No. 42 RPI: It's a small bump, but Texas State swept two games from McNeese State, likely the last games it will play in the regular season against RPI top-100 competition. The Southland Conference has knocked at the door in recent seasons when it comes to earning an NCAA tournament at-large bid, but with wins against Baylor, BYU, Houston (twice), Nebraska (twice) and Texas Tech, Texas State has the credentials this season to get in with or without an automatic bid.
Virginia Tech (35-16, 11-6 ACC, No. 32 RPI): It would have been even better if not for a 1-0 loss in extra innings in the series opener, but taking two of three against in-state rival Virginia and beating Radford on Tuesday made for a very good stretch for the Hokies. Looking to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since All-American ace Angela Tincher departed, Virginia Tech added to a strong record against RPI top-100 teams (17-12 based on the most recent RPI). The Cavaliers already possessed a tenuous at-large profile, but the series outcome also doesn't hurt the Hokies in further weakening another NCAA hopeful.
Hurt cause Kentucky (24-26, 10-12 SEC, No. 45 RPI): The math works against Kentucky. The Wildcats have enough SEC wins and a good enough RPI to make the NCAA tournament without much of an argument, except for the pesky fact that they are two games under .500 overall after Tuesday's win against Morehead State. With three games at Florida and three games at home against LSU remaining before the SEC tournament, that's going to be difficult to make up. Three one-run losses on the road at Mississippi State last weekend, one in extra innings and two in walk-off fashion, probably put an at-large bid out of reach.
Kansas (28-16, 5-13 Big 12, No. 43 RPI): File last week's series win against Iowa State under the pyrrhic heading. The Jayhawks took two of three against the Cyclones, but they needed a sweep against the only team behind them in the Big 12 standings. The RPI worked in their favor at last check, but they are 5-13 in the league with three games at home against Texas Tech and on the road at Texas A&M remaining. With no RPI top-25 wins to their credit and a poor record against top-50 foes, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Games to watch
Arizona State at Washington: If any team knows exactly what kind of finishing kick is needed to win a championship, it's Arizona State. Did we just see the Sun Devils start to shift into gear? The defending champs rolled over Stanford last weekend and have only this trip to Seattle and a home series against Utah before a season-ending showdown at Cal. The Huskies, on the other hand, are doing their best to keep their heads above water as wave after wave of conference competition hits them.
Fresno State at Hawaii: The Rainbow Wahine are still in strong enough RPI position to contend for a seed in the NCAA tournament (it won't mean a chance to play at home, but it could keep them from squaring off against a Pac-12 seed in regionals) and have lost just once at home against an unranked team this season. The Bulldogs should be safely in the field of 64, given their success against RPI top-100 and top-50 opponents, but a curiously low RPI leaves them with some reason to sweat.
Georgia at LSU: It's likely these teams will meet again in the opening round of the SEC tournament in two weeks, but this is still the best series on the SEC schedule this weekend. Speaking of schedules, they don't come much more grueling than the one LSU dealt with in April. This series wraps up a slate that included trips to Alabama, Tennessee and Florida, as well as tough games out of conference against Florida State and McNeese State. Coming off Tuesday's doubleheader against the Gators in Gainesville, how much will Brittany Mack and Rachele Fico have left?
Houston at Central Florida: With the top two teams in Conference USA, Tulsa and UAB, playing series against the bottom two teams in the league, neither Houston nor Central Florida can really afford losses as they sit tied for third, two games behind Tulsa and fighting for NCAA tournament at-large credentials. If that wasn't enough reason to pay attention, it's also a battle of the league's best hitting team, Houston, and best pitching team, UCF, in conference play. Will UCF freshman standout Mackenzie Audas get the best of Houston sluggers Holly Anderson and Melissa Gregson?
James Madison at Georgia State: Both teams are chasing undefeated Hofstra in the CAA (in which the regular-season champion hosts the conference tournament), but Georgia State put itself in the at-large conversation for the NCAA tournament with a 5-1 win at Alabama last week. What the Panthers, who followed their win in Tuscaloosa with a costly split at Delaware and own an RPI on the iffy side of the bubble, can't afford is to lose any more ground before the conference tournament.
Texas vs. Texas A&M: The rivalry plays out one more time before Texas A&M departs for the SEC, with a home game for the Aggies on Thursday (ESPN2/ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET) followed by two games at Texas over the weekend. Beyond the sentimental side of things, it's also a series between teams still fighting for NCAA tournament seeding and looking to keep the pressure on Oklahoma in the Big 12 race.
UCLA at California: After suffering its first Pac-12 loss against Arizona, California bounced back with a 6-0 win to clinch the series. After taking a second loss last weekend at Oregon, the Bears responded with a 10-0 win to clinch the series. Short of perfection, that's a measure of excellence. That said, a visit from the team leading the nation in batting average and slugging percentage will test Cal aces Jolene Henderson and Valerie Arioto, particularly with UCLA unlikely to forget losing three at home a season ago, the first time the Bears swept the Bruins since 1998.
Wisconsin at Purdue:There is no Big Ten tournament, but this may be an elimination situation for NCAA tournament consideration. The Badgers are second in the league, a game ahead of Purdue, but both teams are in tenuous RPI territory. Wisconsin swept Penn State last weekend to run its record to eight wins in its past nine games in Big Ten play. Purdue, on the other hand, suffered a costly setback last week in losing two of three at out-of-contention Illinois.
Player of the year watch
Hillary Bach, Arizona State
Stock up: There are things beyond a pitcher's control that affect wins and losses, but that hardly takes away from the fact that Bach hasn't lost a game in nearly two calendar years. Overshadowed by teammate Dallas Escobedo to start this season, Arizona State's senior improved to 19-0 this season (she was 10-0 last season) with a pair of wins against Stanford.
Amanda Locke, Alabama
Stock up: It's no surprise that an Alabama player dominated both the circle and the plate in a big moment. But it wasn't Jackie Traina. After a midweek loss against Georgia State, Alabama was in danger of losing an SEC series at Georgia until Locke took over the finale. Her pitching shut down the Bulldogs for six innings and she drove in three runs with a home run and a two-out RBI single in the seventh.
Jessica Moore, Oregon
Stock up: Arizona State and Cal have been shut out a combined three times this season. Moore is responsible for two of them. She added a shutout against the Bears over the weekend to one earlier this season against the Sun Devils by striking out eight and allowing just four hits against the nation's top-ranked team. Cal got the last laugh, beating Moore twice to win the series, but Oregon's ace is as good as anyone on her day.
Michelle Moses, Fresno State
Stock up: The senior earned a pair of wins as the Bulldogs swept New Mexico State. Now 20-11 on the season, Moses threw a one-hit shutout in the opener, her second one-hit shutout in a row, and then wrapped up the sweep with a three-hitter in a 2-1 win against the Aggies.
Keilani Ricketts, Oklahoma
Stock up: With two extra-inning games and a combined score of 8-8 across all three games, the Big 12 showdown between Oklahoma and Missouri more than lived up to expectations. And so did Ricketts, who bolstered her case for individual accolades with a fantastic weekend. After pitching all 10 innings and reaching base four times against Chelsea Thomas in her team's 2-1 win to open the series, Ricketts drove in a run and went the distance without allowing an earned run to win the finale by the same 2-1 score.
By the numbers
8: The Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC each feature eight teams in the top 40 of this week's NCAA RPI release.
4: Notre Dame senior Dani Miller has hit double-digit home runs in each of her four seasons for the Fighting Irish. She hit her 10th of the season Tuesday against Michigan State in a 7-1 win for Notre Dame.
21: Louisiana-Lafayette freshman pitcher Jordan Wallace has won 21 straight games to start her career, an NCAA record for a freshman. The streak breaks Amanda Scarbrough's (Texas A&M) record of 20 set in 2005.
13: Massachusetts senior Sara Plourde is averaging 13 strikeouts per seven innings, the best rate in the country. Only three other pitchers are averaging double-digit strikeouts: Keilani Ricketts (Oklahoma), Jen Mineau (Fordham) and Blaire Luna (Texas).
18.2: Florida State freshman pitcher Lacey Waldrop threw 18.2 shutout innings last week, striking out 20 and walking just one batter. Through Sunday's games, Waldrop ranks 14th nationally in ERA (1.2) and 12th in hits allowed per seven innings (4.61).
-- Erin Quinn