BASEBALL: Toppers getting into groove, prepare for Sun Belt

Michael Casagrande

Joel Murrie’s Hilltoppers have a lot to prove when they open the second phase of the schedule this weekend.

A three-game series with Louisiana-Lafayette will mark the beginning of a grueling Sun Belt Conference slate.

The Toppers (10-6) were picked to finish in a tie for sixth in the Sun Belt preseason coaches’ poll.

The Ragin’ Cajuns (6-17) have had their share of hard times this season. Louisiana-Lafayette hit rock bottom Saturday when their losing streak reached 10 with a loss to Illinois-Chicago.

The Cajuns rebounded Sunday to end the skid and avoided a series sweep, defeating the Flames 7-1.

Despite Louisiana-Lafayette’s losing record, Murrie expects a battle from the Cajuns.

“They are a well-coached, very disciplined ball club,” Murrie said. “They’ve had a lot of success over the last several years and we’ve played them very well.”

Junior pitcher Andy Baldwin says there might be a rivalry brewing between the two clubs.

“They’ll be a good team when it comes to conference,” Baldwin said. “It will be a good series this weekend. There is always a bit of competition, between them and us. We always seem to bring out the best in each other.”

Coach Tony Robichaux lost 14 lettermen from last season’s 39-23 team that finished second in the Sun Belt regular season.

A strong regular season did not translate into success in the Sun Belt Tournament for Louisiana-Lafayette. The Cajuns suffered a surprising early round exit.

The team to send Louisiana-Lafayette home early: Western.

Ryan Bicondoa’s final collegiate victory came at the expense of the Ragin’ Cajuns, 2-1 in a 10-inning thriller.

“It was one of the best games I have ever been involved with, as a player or a coach,” Murrie said. “I’m just very happy Ryan Bicondoa was on our team and not the team we were facing.”

Without the All-American Bicondoa on the mound, the Toppers will look to sophomore J.C. Faircloth (4-0) to anchor the staff.

The humble Faircloth does not enjoy the label of being an ace. He deflects much of his praise to his teammates.

“Baseball is a team game and is not really an individual sport,” Faircloth said. “Really, I don’t think there is an ace to a staff, we just try and get the job done no matter who it is.”

The second-year southpaw has an impressive 1.95 ERA in 32 1/3 innings pitched.

From the plate, the Toppers have four regular starters hitting above .300, but junior second baseman Matt Johnston is grabbing all the attention.

Johnston has a hit in every game except the season opener at Central Florida.

“Matt is a real good hitter, I don’t know see why he couldn’t keep it up all year,” Faircloth said with a smile.

The series will get under way at 6 p.m. tomorrow and will conclude with afternoon games on Saturday and Sunday.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected].