Thursday, May 29th 2008, 9:36 pm
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Louisiana-Lafayette might be a bit off the beaten path in the college sports landscape. However, it felt like home to Ashley Brignac.
And after leading the Ragin' Cajuns to a big-time upset in her Women's College World Series debut, Brignac has Lafayette back on the map.
Brignac (31-6) struck out a career-high 15 batters and Holly Tankersley hit a solo home run to center field off NCAA wins leader Stacey Nelson in the eighth inning as the Ragin' Cajuns upset top-seeded Florida 3-2 Thursday.
"Nobody else probably expected us to win this game, but we knew we had the best chance to win it," Brignac said. "If we stay together, we fight and we believe, we're going to go out and get our job done."
Brignac, who played on the U.S. junior national team, visited several other schools but ended up signing close to home at the Sun Belt softball power that had been to the World Series four times before.
In her freshman season, she has the Cajuns back in the Series for the first time since 2003 -- and the Gators (67-4) on the brink of elimination.
"When it came down to it, UL was the place meant for me. It's my home. I absolutely love it. I got happier every single day after I signed," Brignac said. "The team, the community, the fans, the teammates, it's one of a kind. You don't have this special home feeling anywhere else. It's the place for me."
Lafayette was the only school from outside the power conferences to make it through super regional play -- joining three Pac-10 teams, two SEC schools and representatives from the Big 12 and ACC in the field.
With Brignac's pitching and Tankersley's long ball, the Cajuns proved they belong.
Tankersley, who hit her 22nd home run of the season, became the first player to hit a ball into the new 34-foot tall outfield bleachers at Hall of Fame Stadium. She reached for a pitch tailing away on the outside part of the plate and drove it into the front row of the stands.
"It was the pitch that I had grounded out to second the past two at-bats. I just took my chances, closed my eyes and swung, if you want to know honestly," said Tankersley, who's third in the nation in home runs.
Nelson (45-4) had allowed only one other home run in 316 2-3 innings this season and entered the game with the nation's third-lowest ERA (0.73).
"This is a double-elimination tournament. You can't have the attitude that if we lose one, we'll lose another," Nelson said. "Through the season, even though we haven't lost a lot of games, there's been games where we've been behind and we've been able to come back. I think our team has a lot of character in that respect."
The Ragin' Cajuns advance to face fifth-seeded Texas A&M (55-7), which beat Virginia Tech 1-0. The only run came in the sixth inning, when third baseman Charisse Mariconda threw wildly to first on Megan Gibson's grounder, allowing pinch-runner Andrea Tovar to score from second.
Gibson (39-1) threw a five-hit shutout and pitched around two Aggies errors.
Angela Tincher (38-9), the national player of the year, struck out nine and allowed only two hits for unseeded Virginia Tech (49-18).
"I thought Tincher was everything that she is made out to be. She lived up to her billing. She did a nice job against us," Aggies coach Jo Evans said. "The team that made the big mistake ended up taking it on the chin."
The win Texas A&M's first at the World Series since 1988 -- one year after the Aggies' last of two NCAA titles.
Louisiana-Lafayette broke through against Nelson with a pair of infield singles by Karli Hubbard and Vallie Gaspard in the fifth inning. Vanessa Soto, a transfer from LSU who was the only Ragin' Cajuns player who'd ever faced the Gators' ace in college, then lined a two-run double to the base of the wall in right-center field to tie the game at 2.
Brignac was in control from then on.
The freshman who'd been chased from her River Ridge, La., home for a month after Hurricane Katrina didn't allow a hit after the fourth inning and fought through 16 straight foul balls by Tiffany DeFelice to retire her on a fly ball to center field in the eighth.
"When you get to this point, especially with dominant pitching all the way through, you're going to have to do a little bit better job of making adjustments the second and third time around and we did not do that," Florida coach Tim Walton said. "Overall, I don't think we swung the bat well enough to win the game."
Brignac gave up two-out RBI doubles to Corrie Brooks in the second inning and Aja Paculba in the fourth inning. She struck out the side in the second, third and fifth innings and said afterward the World Series wasn't as intimidating because she'd been on a John Curtis Christian School team that won five straight state titles.
"It feels like we're going to state, you know, on a higher level," Brignac said. "We've been in that same atmosphere. So we know how to handle it."
The history of the program, along with the atmosphere created by the husband-and-wife head coaching tandem of Stefni and Mike Lotief, led Brignac to pursue the World Series at Lafayette.
"Out there, you have a life. It isn't all about softball or die," Brignac said. "It's something where you have fun with it. You go there and they literally make it fun for you. It's a place like no other."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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