WATCH: Coach Lotief Previews Ragin’ Cajuns Softball’s 2017 Season
Year in and year out, Ragin' Cajuns Softball is one of the best programs in the country. The expectations are the same in 2017, and their coach is already pushing them.
Head Coach Mike Lotief is a master motivator. He will use anything to get his team's mindset where he wants it, and he likes their chemistry heading into the season.
"This team is close. They love each other. They're going to fight for each other," Lotief said. "I already put the little chip on their shoulder. They feel like underdogs. They feel like people continue to have discussions about people who left."
Lexie Elkins, Shellie Landry, Kelsey Vincent, Sara Corbello and other seniors were huge contributors on the squad, but good teams always reload their talent and others step up.
Losing Elkins behind the plate creates a hole Lotief is looking to fill. He mentioned five different players at Media Day, meaning it's an open competition for the starting position at catcher.
Lotief knows players like Elkins, the number one overall pick in the draft, only come around so often. He's not going to give her replacement unfair expectations.
"There's going to be some dropoff at that position. There has to be. Let's just not panic," Lotief stated calmly. He added, "We're not trying to put that burden or that responsibility or even that comparison on a new kid."
His decision will factor in their defensive skills, and of course, the way they swing the bat. Cajun catchers typically shine on offense, and he said all of this year's candidates have the potential to contribute at the plate.
Last season, Elkins helped a young pitching staff adjust to the speed of the game. This year, the roles will be reversed.
"Alex Stewart is back, and it's always a good thing to have, a senior in the circle that has been through the battles," Lotief said.
Stewart is coming off a 29-win season in 2016, and she's the undeniable ace on the staff. It will be her job to help out the new catcher, whoever it is.
Leadership is always one of the keys to success, and this year's roster certainly isn't lacking in that department. Stewart is the anchor in the circle, and Haley Hayden is the enforcer on the field.
This is Hayden's senior year, and she's been a key cog for the Cajuns since her first year on campus. Not only is she the chosen leader of the team, she's also filling several other roles for Lotief.
She worked at first base all offseason to fill the vacancy left by Vincent, but Lotief is still working her at second base and in the outfield too. He likes to explore his options, and it sounds like Hayden will pop up all over the field.
"Haley is the wildcard in this whole lineup," Lotief explained. "There are about fifteen different lineup scenarios right now. In a third of them, she's at first. In a third of them, she's at second, and in the other third, she's in the outfield."
No matter where she is in the field, Lotief said she will still bat leadoff. She will set the tone on offense, as well as in the dugout.
Every year, there's a player that makes a huge jump. Last year, it was DJ Sanders, who displayed incredible power with 18 home runs. This year, Lotief expects another youngster to make that jump.
"Kara Gremillion will take the DJ [Sanders] leap this year," Lotief said definitively.
Gremillion got hot at the end of the season, and she certainly didn't play like a freshman in 2016. She came up with clutch plays in her first year with the Ragin' Cajuns, so what impact will she have in 2017?
As always, Louisiana's out-of-conference schedule is filled with heavy hitters. Alabama and Baylor are both coming to Lamson Park, the #1 softball venue in America.
People outside of the softball world might be surprised that big programs like that choose to come to a Sun Belt school, but Lotief and the Ragin' Cajuns command respect. Teams know when they come to Lamson Park, they get a taste of the postseason.
"I think the reason teams come here is they want to subject their teams to this environment. It's a super-regional environment," Lotief said. "It's not just the game of softball, it's the experience."
The season begins on February 10th, with the Louisiana Classics Tournament. Lamson Park will be alive again, filled with the best fans in the country.
To hear Lotief's thoughts on the season to come, the new experimental rule changes in the Sun Belt Conference, and the questions he needs to answer before the season starts, make sure to watch his full press conference in the video above.