WATCH: Lotief Answers Questions Before Ragin’ Cajuns First Game
Game week is finally here for Ragin' Cajuns Softball. One of the top teams in the country is about to hit the diamond again, and their goals are the same as every year.
With Mike Lotief coaching the team, Louisiana's name stays near the top of the softball world. They lost some big contributors like the #1 draft pick Lexie Elkins and senior leaders like Shellie Landry, Kelsey Vincent and Sara Corbello, but great teams don't rebuild, the reload.
Lotief made his message clear in his last press conference before the start of the season.
"We know the expectations are high, and we embrace them. We're ready," Lotief stated.
This close to the start of the season, Lotief doesn't want to show his hand to anybody. He said he's still tweaking his lineup, playing around with the pitching staff and shuffling his deck of cards to find the right mix.
Last time Lotief spoke to the media, he said he had about 15 different lineups. He narrowed that number down, but he still hasn't found his perfect setup yet. Chances are, he could throw out several different lineups the first few weeks of the season, just to see how things shake out.
"I don't have a final lineup," Lotief said. He added, "I think we have it down to about six different scenarios."
There are several factors affecting his final lineup. First off, setting a lineup is a delicate dance. Coaches try to setup their players to ride the flow of a game and prevent there from being any holes or weak spots. The other part is much simpler. Lotief still hasn't found his starting catcher.
Last year, Elkins was the top catcher in the country and a monster at the plate. Whoever suits up behind the plate this season will have big shoes to fill, but Lotief emphasized that he doesn't expect anybody to do what Elkins did last year. She was a once in a lifetime player, and he just wants his catcher in 2017 to focus on reaching their own potential and helping the team win games.
A few days before the Ragin' Cajuns throw the first pitch of the season, Lotief is still trying to decide who will catch it.
"We have it narrowed down to three: Jaime Landry, Lexie Comeaux and Brittany Nollkamper," Lotief explained.
There might be a question at catcher, but there's no doubt whatsoever who the leader in the circle will be.
Alex Stewart won 29 games last season, and she's the undisputed ace on the staff heading into 2017. It will be her job to bring along the new catcher and be the rock of the defense, right in the middle of the diamond.
Lotief knows who is ace is, without a doubt. The hierarchy behind her? Not so much.
"We know that Alex is the top of our rotation, and the key question is who is going to be number two," Lotief said.
Kylee Jo Trahan, Macey Smith, Victoria Brown and several other arms will play a part in the 2017 season, but who will emerge as the clear number two behind Stewart?
Lotief was very blunt when he talked about the opponents for this weekend's Louisiana Classics Tournament. He said he didn't have much to say about them because his team's focus was on themselves, not the other teams. Typically, it would come off as complete coach-speak, but with all the questions he is trying to answer, it actually might be true in this situation.
Was Lotief saying he didn't scout the opponents? Clearly not. Cajun fans know Lotief has a crafty way of keeping his game plan secret. Reading between the lines, his message was closer to, "I'm still trying to figure some things out."
"Our focus the first two or three weekends is going to be on us," is exactly what Lotief said. Interpret it however you please.
Expect to see several different lineups, a couple different pitchers and a lot of variation on the field and in the lineup for Louisiana early in the season. Even with a full offseason to study the team, some the best coaches need to see how things shake out in live action sometimes to make their final adjustments.
One thing will certainly help early in the season. There is no lack of leadership on the team.
Lotief said he wants his entire team to lead, but a few individuals definitely stand out when you examine the roster. Stewart leads the pitchers, preseason Sun Belt Player of the Year Aleah Craighton leads the outfield, and DJ Sanders and Haley Hayden rule the infield. Leadership at all levels will make Lotief's job easier, and one player is helping him get his messages out loud and clear.
Hayden has 169 games under her belt wearing vermilion and white. She started as a freshman, and now she's entering her senior year. Even when she was a youngster on the squad, her intensity and will to win made her a leader. Now, she's Lotief's main mouthpiece to the rest of the roster.
"She's going to do some things because she's a senior, and she's more of an extension around me," Lotief said. "When she speaks, they give her a lot of deference because her comments reflect how I think."
The leadership will be consistent. Stewart's pitching will be top notch, and no matter how the lineup looks, every softball fan knows the Ragin' Cajuns are going to hit. Everybody knows the end result the team is looking for, but how will they get for?
All the hype is about to come to a head on Friday, when Louisiana finally hits the field. Make sure you don't miss a single pitch all season, as we bring you all the action on ESPN 1420. The season starts this Friday at 3:00 pm. Are you ready?