Commentary

Ragin' Cajuns laugh all the way to the winners' bracket

Originally Published: May 29, 2008
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The chalk outline of the batter's box at Hall of Fame Stadium was gone by the end of the first two innings of the opening game of the Women's College World Series, wiped away by the shuffling feet of batters from Florida and Louisiana-Lafayette. The chalk in the bracket didn't last much longer, erased by a team so intent on having fun that it's becoming rather adept at making opponents miserable.

Behind an eighth-inning home run from Holly Tankersley, a line shot to center that gave the senior sole possession of the NCAA lead in home runs this season, Louisiana- Lafayette beat No. 1 seed Florida 3-2. The result relegated the SEC champions to the loser's bracket and denied them (for now, at least) the NCAA record for single-season wins.

Though the result was a surprise to most outside the Louisiana-Lafayette dugout and the team's large and loud cheering section, it was more of the same for a team that entered the World Series with 51 wins, Sun Belt regular-season and conference tournament championships and two pairs of NCAA tournament road wins at LSU and Houston.

"People have considered us an underdog because we were one of two unseeded teams to make it to the World Series," explained Vanessa Soto, who set up Tankersley's heroics with a key two-run double in the fifth inning. "We don't consider ourselves underdogs. We know how good we are. We've known how good we are since Day One. We practice together every day and we see, day in and day out, what we can do as a group. Coming in here, we don't relish the [underdog] role -- we just say, if people are going to underestimate us, that's fine. We know how good we are. We can't really control anyone else's thoughts."

Nor can they control the perks and luxuries other teams enjoy -- and sometimes take for granted.

Several teams chartered flights to Oklahoma City this week. Almost all at least arrived on conventional flights into Will Rogers World Airport. All except Louisiana-Lafayette, a small-budget program that can point to five total appearances in the World Series (and a respectable 6-7 record) as evidence of the best dollar-for-dollar success in the sport. The Sun Belt champions made the trip by bus, a trip that stretched out toward 12 hours when they encountered a portion of closed interstate near Dallas.

[+] EnlargeKelly Cormier
AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Chris LandsbergerLouisiana-Lafayette and Kelly Cormier evaded the Gators in the WCWS opener.

A hassle for some, for the Ragin' Cajuns it was just another opportunity for bus karaoke.

Tankersley is the team's star and statesman, a fifth-year senior whose experience dates back as far as a home run that helped eliminate Arizona from the NCAA tournament in 2004. But on a team with 19 first- or second-year players and just five juniors and seniors (two of whom are first-year transfers), she's also a little like softball's Jane Goodall. She may share some softball traits with the fun-loving, game-playing underclassmen around her, but she's also sometimes a stranger in their midst.

With a large crowd filing in around them before the first pitch, the Ragin' Cajuns seemed more concerned with the game of softball hacky sack, keeping a ball moving around a circle of players by hitting it with their gloves, than with the magnitude of the moment. Throughout practice on Wednesday, they laughed, joked and generally had as much fun as it's possible to have in a setting typically replete with drills and monotony.

"I can say that when you get older, you mature, and that's just part of being an adult," Tankersley said. "And this team is so young that if we tried to be mature, we couldn't. That's kind of a good thing, because you still have your moments where you need to get out there and be serious, and then you still have your moments where, 'Let's act like we're 19 years old' -- because half the team is 19 years old. I think that's the difference."

Freshman ace Ashley Brignac, who celebrated a birthday on May 2, is one of those 19-year-olds. Two days before her birthday, she threw a four-hit shutout against Houston and struck out 10. The latter number was one of 16 double-digit strikeout performances she had before striking out a career-best 15 against the Gators. Even while expressing frustration at his team's inability to adjust, Florida coach Tim Walton explained why the sky is the limit for Brignac: She beat the top overall seed without using surprise or subterfuge.

[+] EnlargeHolly Tankersley
AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Chris LandsbergerHolly Tankersley's home run lifted ULL past Florida in the eighth inning.

"We knew exactly the velocity they had and what kind of pitches she had," Walton said. "She didn't throw anything at us today that we didn't know she had. I think she threw one off-speed pitch the whole day."

Thursday was Brignac's first start in the World Series, but it wasn't her first start on a global stage. As a senior in high school, the Gatorade National Player of the Year pitched the United States to a title in the junior world championships last summer. So even as tension replaced the otherwise immovable humidity as Brignac battled Tiffany DeFelice pitch after pitch for 21 pitches in the bottom of the eighth, she didn't wilt.

She threw 187 pitches on the day but retired 12 of the final 14 batters she faced and didn't allow a hit after the first batter of the fourth inning.

"I think she thrives for the moment," Louisiana-Lafayette coach Stefni Lotief said. "She truly loves softball -- it's who she is; it's what she does. And she's very good at it. I think the bigger the stage, the better the opportunity for her to go out there and shine."

The Ragin' Cajuns are a unique bunch. One of the team's strongest leaders, Soto is in her first and only season with the team after she transferred from LSU. Starting third baseman Melissa Verde has played with a torn ACL for two months. And the team's top two pitchers are in their first seasons. But the sum of the parts is a team that just kept smiling when it spotted the top overall seed only two runs on Thursday afternoon.

Even Tankersley, the almost bashful slugger on a team of unabashed spirits, drew a laugh after the game when saying she simply closed her eyes and swung on the clutch home run.

Louisiana-Lafayette is happy to be here, but they aren't just happy to be here.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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