All-American BR-10 Louisiana-Lafayette catcher Lexie Elkins came into this season as the reigning NFCA/Diamond Sports D1 Catcher of the Year and two-time reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year. For the first month of the season she more than lived up to the lofty expectations those accolades provided – hitting .561 with 11 home runs and 26 RBI. During that same span, she racked up 13 multi-hit and 12 multi-RBI games. She was leading the nation in batting average (.538), slugging percentage (1.2633), and home runs per game (0.59).
But then on March 29, in the second half of a double header against BR-20 Baylor, Elkins suffered a thumb injury that would keep her in the dugout for the entirety of April and a good chunk of May. Her team was 25-3 when she went out, and went 14-4 while she was gone, including three consecutive losses to BR-1 Florida.
Lexie (pictured left courtesy of Louisiana-Lafayette Athletics) was undaunted.
"During her injury, she kept working day by day and [stayed] engaged with the team and her teammates," said Head Coach Michael Lotief. "People know Lexie as a great power hitter, but truth be known, she is even a better person and great leader."
She returned on May 12 and her team hasn't lost a game since. Of course, what team wouldn't be excited to bring the No. 1 overall pick in this year's National Pro Fastpitch Draft back to the field. But she certainly hasn't been the only reason for the Ragin' Cajuns' six consecutive wins through the Sun Belt tournament and NCAA Regional round.
Coach Lotief says one of Elkins' best characteristics is her ability to make those around her better. So, of course, when she fell victim to injury, other hitters had to pick up the slack. Shellie Landry, Haley Hayden, and Kelsey Vincent are all good offensive players – each hit better than .300 with double-digit home run totals last season. But the whole team has elevated their game this year.
Coach Lotief noted, "you also see the emergence of some new, young hitters liker like DJ Sanders, Aleah Craighton, and Kara Gemillion." All six of the players mentioned have hit over .300 this season, more than making up for Elkins’ absence.
Lotief also talked about his team’s drive. "This team has battled adversity throughout this season and really over the past 3 or 4 years, whether it be serious health problems with family members to injuries on the field or just battling the ups and [downs] of the game itself."
— Ragin Cajun Softball (@RaginCajunSB) May 24, 2016
The Ragin’ Cajuns were trailing 8-6, down to their final two outs in the seventh inning, when Sanders launched a two-run homer to straightaway center to knot the Championship Final and send it to extra frames.
After a scoreless eighth inning it was Creighton’s turn, leading off the ninth inning with a solo shot to lift the Ragin' Cajuns into a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Elkins' home run in the opening frame got the offense rolling, but you can bet the experience her teammates gained while filling the hole left by her injury earlier in the season made a difference when the two burgeoning sophomore stars stepped into the box during crunch time.
The win means Louisiana-Lafayette is in the NCAA tournament for the 26th time in the last 27 seasons. They are also one of only nine schools that has made the NCAA Tournament in each season since 2000.
The trip to Norman will mark the Ragin’ Cajuns fifth consecutive appearance in the Super Regional Round, and will give them the opportunity to advance to the NCAA Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2014.
Elkins, Craighton, Hayden, and the rest of the Ragin' Cajuns will meet Oklahoma Thursday, May 26 and Friday, May 27 at Marita Hynes Field in Norman, Oklahoma. The team proved themselves in Elkins' absence, now they're ready to prove themselves once again.