Originally Published: April 25, 2012
Courtesy of ragincajuns.comChristi Orgeron has blossomed into one of the most dominant hitters in the game at Louisiana-Lafayette.

Ragin' Cajuns' diamond in the rough sparkles

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

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?

[+] Enlarge
Courtesy of ragincajuns.comOrgeron is far and away the nation's leader in RBIs with 83 -- 19 more than her closest competitor.

"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.

Bubble watch

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

Helped cause
UW 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.

UW 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.

UW 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 UW 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.

UW 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.

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