Michael Lotief fights for Ragin' Cajuns

Brad Kemp/RaginCajuns.com

Michael Lotief's passionate approach sets the tone for a Louisiana-Lafayette program that prides itself on beating teams from the power conferences.

It was only the first inning of an NCAA tournament game against Texas, but Louisiana-Lafayette coach Michael Lotief was already out of the dugout to fight what he saw as the good fight.

Louisiana-Lafayette, the overall No. 6 seed in the tournament and one of its more youthful teams, needed to win only once at home to advance to a super regional, while Texas needed to beat the Ragin' Cajuns twice that afternoon. But even in the sultry heart of Louisiana's Acadiana region, momentum can snowball out of control at this time of year. In part because two Ragin' Cajuns outfielders collided in pursuit of a routine fly ball, Texas already had a foot in the door when it appeared to load the bases with two outs after the umpire called a Longhorns batter safe on a close play at first base.

Lotief was on the dirt of the infield to protest before the crowd at Lamson Park fully expelled its displeasure with the call. Tasked first with making sure there wasn't interference or obstruction as the runner who was already on first base made her way to second, the umpire who made the call didn't have a perfect angle on the ensuing play at first base.

The initial burst of emotion that propelled him out of the dugout restrained, Lotief didn't appear to berate or belittle. The man who once opened his own law practice instead made his case.

Two umpires huddled briefly along the first-base line as Lotief hovered a few feet away. When the base umpire signaled that the runner was out, Lotief spun toward his dugout, let out a yell and repeatedly pumped both fists like Tiger Woods after a long birdie putt on Sunday at a major.

Replays made clear that Lotief was right. He will always fight for what he believes is right. The courage of his convictions explains why a program from the obscurity of the Sun Belt Conference remains a perennial national power and why a team that was supposed to be rebuilding this season instead hosts No. 11 Arizona, bluest of softball blue bloods, in a super regional this week.

The confidence of those convictions is also why he is a figure who can both charm and infuriate his peers, fans, umpires and pretty much everyone else.

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The Louisiana-Lafayette program is enmeshed in the culture of the state's Acadiana region.

"He is very passionate about everything he does," Louisiana-Lafayette senior Natalie Fernandez said. "I think if you come to one softball game for one inning, you can tell how passionate he is about this sport and his players. I think he is the same on and off the field. He loves what he does. That's inspiring to see."

Lotief is an outsider and unapologetically so. The result is a program that is one of a kind, even as it gives every team in the shadows a banner to follow.

In script lettering across the front of the softball team's jersey are the words "Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns." The first apostrophe may be a subtle dig at the SEC school up the road in Baton Rouge, not to mention part of the school's ongoing push to be recognized as the University of Louisiana. On the other hand, this is a program born of a particular place, one that revels in its uniqueness and whose people, whether direct descendants of the French-speaking Acadian immigrants or absorbed in the intervening generations, are fiercely protective of that identity.

There isn't a more logical fit for a program anywhere in college sports than Lotief. Born and raised in the area, he has a thick Cajun inflection to his speech. He graduated from Louisiana-Lafayette and earned a law degree from LSU. He understands a place that is a different world within the borders of the state and country it otherwise occupies.

A Texan who originally played at the University of Arizona, Matte Haack transferred to Louisiana-Lafayette for her final two seasons of eligibility. Her final game came in the super regional a season ago, but she remains in the Lafayette area and doesn't expect that will change in the near future.

"You know the name Ragin' Cajuns, but I never really understood what it meant until I came here," Haack said. "The culture is so incredible here, the history that they have here. And then all the food is amazing. It's just a whole new world down here. It's hard to explain, and it's hard to grasp until you've actually been here and experienced it. That's why I'm so excited that UL gets to host in the supers, so people can get just a small taste of what it's like down here."

We don't see any difference between us and an SEC school or a bigger team like that. We don't see ourselves like that. We know that we can compete with anybody in the country.
Natalie Fernandez

Of the 27 players listed on the roster this season, 15 are from Louisiana. Only three are from nonadjacent states. The roster always looks like that. Even Arizona, which pulls from a more populous state that is also part of softball's traditional West Coast cradle, has only 10 in-state players.

Year after year, Lotief looks beyond the elite travel ball teams and highest-profile summer exposure tournaments that typically feed Division I programs and comes away with comparable talent. He finds what he is looking for closer to home or welcomes those looking for a new start.

"I'm looking for a kid who is competitive," Lotief said. "I'm looking for a kid who has good academics, I'm looking for a kid who is a hard worker, I'm looking for a kid who respects the game and will represent this program to little girls as a role model. So it's all the same stuff [as other elite programs]. These kids are very athletic, and they work extremely hard. And most of them have followed the tradition of this program since they were little girls."

Only 10 programs have more all-time NCAA tournament wins than Louisiana-Lafayette. Two wins this weekend would mean a sixth trip to the Women's College World Series. That's what Shellie Landry grew up with in Broussard, Louisiana, just down the road from Lafayette. For a decade before she earned a starting spot in the outfield, she was in the stands and at the softball camps.

"It's weird to say that you know where you want to go since you were a kid," Landry said. "But always being around this program since I was little, and my mom went here and everything, I felt like if I would have gone somewhere else, I would have been leaving my family -- leaving my softball family, not just my family at home."

That tradition isn't entirely Lotief's creation. In fact, he is in some ways a product of it. Formerly known as Southwestern Louisiana, the school had one of the first nationally relevant softball programs in the South because of former coach Yvette Girouard, who started the whole thing in 1981 and sowed the seeds for another dynasty when she hired Patrick Murphy, now Alabama's head coach, as an assistant.

When Girouard left for LSU in 2001, a move that added to the plentiful acrimony between the two fan bases, the coaching reins fell to one of her former All-American pitchers, Stefni Lotief. She, in turn, brought aboard her husband as a volunteer assistant and soon co-head coach. Stefni resigned after the 2012 season, and Michael took sole possession of the job.

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Senior Natalie Fernandez leads Louisiana-Lafayette with a .434 batting average and .540 on-base percentage.

He didn't put the program on top, but it is not a stretch to say it remains there by dint of his personality.

The display of emotion after the call reversal against Texas was nothing new. A day earlier, Lotief executed a pirouette that was Shakespearean in its pathos when a runner stopped at third base instead of heeding his sign and trying to score. He is intense in a way that takes on a life -- and reputation -- of its own, whether with opponents or with what his players describe as "boot camp week" each preseason. Fernandez called him one of the funniest people she ever met. Haack talked about the loyalty she feels toward him even now that her playing days are done. But he unquestionably rubs a lot of people the wrong way and simply puzzles more.

"I understand if people want to label me too," Lotief said. "I've been labeled my whole life. Who I am to others who don't really know me is just really a label. I know a lot of times that people want me to make those concessions to change that perception. In my judgment, who I am is a good person. What my motives are are pure."

Perhaps the quintessential Lotief experience came last year. Hours before the start of the 2013 season, he abruptly resigned. He said he would stay on as a volunteer assistant, but he would no longer be the head coach. At the time, he cited family concerns. It wasn't a mistruth, but there was more to it than that.

"When you fight those battles ... sometimes you feel that you're doing it in isolation," Lotief said. "A lot of times you feel like you're on an island and that the cause that you're pursuing maybe just doesn't matter. Can anybody hear you? You feel as though you sacrificed in your life and you're spending all these hours and time and you want it to matter. You want to make a difference. When finally, when I did step away, you become disillusioned and you become frustrated because you think your efforts are not making a difference."

It was not, he concedes now, the right way to go about things. But confrontation, he unsurprisingly suggested, is sometimes the only way to get people to stop and think about something. The response he got from the administration and community convinced him to return to the full-time role three weeks later.

Backing down from a fight worth fighting isn't part of the program's DNA.

Even by local standards, the current team is winning beyond its station. It began this season without the players who posted its four best slugging percentages a season ago. With a lineup full of freshmen and sophomores, the Ragin' Cajuns figured to lean heavily on pitcher Jordan Wallace, who went 32-9 and struck out 382 batters a season ago and earned a summer tryout with Team USA. But Wallace ran into serious control problems that have plagued her all season.

Unexpectedly losing an All-American in the circle would sink most programs, major or otherwise, but in stepped Christina Hamilton. Another in-state product who dealt with injuries during her first two seasons and what Fernandez described as a bad mindset a season ago, she is 27-2 with a 1.53 ERA.

Hamilton has plenty of support. Despite the bats it lost, Louisiana-Lafayette enters the super regional with almost identical on-base and slugging percentages to a season ago. There isn't a star to single out like Nerissa Myers, Christi Orgeron and Danyele Gomez had been before. More than ever it's a collective effort. The result was a 6-2 record during the regular season against teams still in the tournament.

Those are the teams the Cajuns live to beat. Not upset. Just beat. They do not always get that same respect from those opponents.

"We don't see any difference between us and an SEC school or a bigger team like that," Fernandez said. "We don't see ourselves like that. We know that we can compete with anybody in the country. All of our hard work and our dedication to the team and our sisters, that's no different than any other school in the country. So why should we see ourselves any different than them?"

There is a decidedly populist strain to much about the man behind that attitude. It isn't actually true that the unorthodox split-grip hitting technique with which he is most readily identified can make anyone a power hitter, but it sometimes seems that way looking at the program's statistics. Lotief speaks about wanting a program that is built on and appeals to the ideals of working people. He wants girls to have the same athletic opportunities as boys. Given that most of those who play college softball are going to do so at a level other than the SEC or Pac-12, be it mid-major Division I, Divisions II and III or junior college, he thinks there should be a program that they can look to as an example where labels don't determine what is possible. One like that in Lafayette.

For better or worse, Lotief is unfailingly and unrelentingly passionate about all these things.

He didn't know much about softball or women's sports when he married his wife. Now he is in some ways consumed by it. By the game itself, yes, but by what it represents too.

"Maybe that's part of my passion," Lotief said. "There's a part of me that feels guilty for having a blind spot for all those years. But once you come to the realization and you see it the way that my wife sees it or one of these student-athletes sees it, you can no longer sit and be silent. To me, that's the legal part of my training that gets me in trouble. When you see an injustice and you are aware of it, then you have an obligation and a responsibility to stand up and be heard.

"You may be able to make a difference, but that is not the measure. Again, that's a label and an outcome. The measure is do you have the moral courage to stand up for what's right?"

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