No. 1 Opelousas Catholic has had right recipe for return trip to Division IV state softball tournament

by William Weathers // Contributor

The team’s ace pitcher Ashley Little had just put the finishing touches on last Friday’s 2-0 victory over No. 9 Ouachita Christian in a Division IV select state quarterfinal victory.

The team started gathering for a subtle celebration, the usual round of embraces and high-fives, but clearly the Lady Vikings wanted more.

“That didn’t take long for them and that they were back now,” OC first-year softball coach Cullen Matherne said. “It’s kind of a last rodeo thing for them. They’ve had this expectation from the very beginning. This has been a long-time goal and very deserving for a great group of girls.”

A year after losing to District 6-1A foe Catholic-Pointe Coupee in the state semifinals, Opelousas Catholic’s returned to the state tournament for a third consecutive time with one clear objective – a state championship.

Opelousas Catholic (23-6) begins play at noon Friday against No. 3 Ascension Catholic (15-11) at Field No. 13 at Sulphur’s North Frasch Park.

District 6-1A will have at least one team in Saturday’s state championship at noon when No. 2 Catholic-PC faces No. 6 Sacred-Heart in Friday’s other semifinal at noon.

“We have a good senior crew (six) that have been there and done that,” Matherne, also the school’s head football coach. “They’ve experienced it. They’re a crew that’s been to Sulphur, lost in the semifinals and the finals (2022 to Calvary Baptist) as well.”

OCS appears to be peaking at the right time.

The Vikings, the District 6-1A champion, has won nine of their last 10 games with Little throwing a pair of shutouts in the postseason against Cedar Creek (3-0) and Ouachita Christian.

Little, a junior that’s committed to Nicholls State, leads the team’s pitching staff with a 15-4 record, 1.42 earned run average with 166 strikeouts and has fanned nearly 600 batters in her career.

Kaydence Faul and Jordan White also lend depth to OCS’ pitching staff.

“We believe we have three pitchers that we use, but we rely on one,” Matherne said. “We know what we’re going to get out of Ashley. She puts her passion into pitching and our girls really play well when she’s on the mound because they feed off her confidence. We’ve thrown some zeroes in the playoffs, but it hasn’t come without great defense.”

Matherne has tested his team, as well as his pitching staff, against a formidable non-district schedule that’s prepared his squad for the rigors of 6-1A play and the postseason.

When the Vikings began the season 7-3, they were shutout 5-0 by nationally ranked North DeSoto, the state’s top-ranked team by MaxPreps, but had to do some soul searching after consecutive losses that included a 6-3 setback to parish rival Port Barre on Feb. 27.

“That was a game we felt we should have won,” Matherne said. “It put everything into perspective. We wanted to be a state championship team and we struggled in a simple midweek game. It became a matter that we had to find ourselves because the tough competition was coming.

“Every game matters and you can’t look past any game,” Matherne said. “That one was where we bonded after. We lost a close one (3-0) to Pineville in the next game but they’re a 5A team that’s in the Division I select semifinals. We knew the talent was coming. We’re not scared of talent. The girls get excited when we play tough teams. They really enjoy it.”

Matherne said the team’s focus shifted from talk of winning a championship to simply being more consistent.

“You’re going to lose some hard games early in the season,” he said. “That was one of the games where I think we’re better for it now.”

OC went on to win eight of its next nine games, falling only to reigning Division I select state champion St. Thomas More (10-1). The Vikings closed the regular season with eight wins in their last nine games, a stretch that included a memorable 8-7 win over E.D. White on April 5.

OC rallied from a six-run deficit after the bottom of the second on the road against E.D. White, a semifinalist in Division II, to tie the game at 7-7 in the sixth and won it in the seventh with another run.

“Credit to the girls,” Matherne said. “We’ve developed a culture they’re never out of a game. We just said we were going to come back one run at a time. The closer the game (6-1 in one-run games this season) they never feel like they’re out of it.”

With Little setting the tone, OCS has relied on an opportunistic offense and solid defense to reach this juncture.

Senior shortstop Madison Gussman leads the team in homers with eight and 32 RBIs and outfielder Rheagan Butler (22 stolen bases) ignites a running game that’s stolen 90 bases this season.

Junior third baseman Grace Luna is the team’s top hitter (.367), and senior catcher Brooklyn Gerald is the team’s leader in hits (33).

“That’s been the game plan all year,” Matherne said. “We haven’t been a fantastic hitting year, so it’s been a matter of being scrappy, and pitching well and playing great defense. Speed doesn’t slump. Bunting and stealing bases help with manufacturing runs.

“We’ve played against great pitchers all year,” Matherne said. “There’s going to be days when you’re not going to be able to score 10 runs. But we’re going to need three or four (runs) to win and we’ve been able to do it. We know the pitching in Sulphur’s going to be good. We feel that’s a strategy that’s going to continue.”

Gerald’s also part of the team’s veteran presence, along with Faul in center, Butler in left, senior first baseman Hallie Lavergne and junior second baseman Alexis LaFleur, that’s provided the leadership necessary to return to the state tournament.

“It’s really hard to get under their skin,” Matherne said. Confidence is throughout the entire dugout.”