Given how long Mélissa Mayeux has been making headlines, it may come as a surprise that the French baseball and softball phenom is still just 22. And while the contours of her story have been told on numerous occasions, it’s also worth remembering that her remarkable run is far from over.
In fact, the next chapter in her already storied career begins in exactly one week: on Friday, Feb. 12. That’s when Mayeux and her teammates on the University of Louisiana-Lafayette (UL) women’s softball team — the Ragin’ Cajuns — kick off the 2021 season, at home, with games against both Missouri State and Baylor University.
The excitement, needless to say, is building. But so is the pressure, because at the level the UL team plays, in the highest division (NCAA D1) of U.S. collegiate sports, the competition is fierce, as are the expectations.
Preseason polls have the Ragin’ Cajuns ranked as high as 7th in the country, and their coach, Gerry Glasco — who has a stellar 109-28 record in three seasons — has said publicly that this is his most talented group to date.
Mayeux, who joined the team last year after transferring from Miami Dade College in Florida, speaks in equally glowing terms about the depth of this year’s squad.
“Last year we already had a good team, but this year it’s just: wow! There are at least 15 of us who can really hit and make great plays on defense,” she told Le Baseblog in a recent telephone interview. “I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.”
A power-hitting pioneer
The 2020 version of the team had a solid 18-6 record when the COVID-19 pandemic brought a sudden halt to the season, just five weeks after it began. What’s more, they seemed to be improving as time went on, winning six of their last seven games, including two against Sam Houston State — by a combined score of 34-0! — in what proved to be their final day of action, on March 11.
Mayeux was off to an exciting start in her own right. In just her second game with the group, she hit a three-run, walk-off home run to beat the University of Texas at San Antonio. She hit three more long balls in what remained of the season, batted .294 overall, and finished with 19 RBIs, second on the team behind senior (fourth-year player) Sarah Hudek.
Not bad for a young woman from France, where softball is still just a niche sport, and who hardly even played the game before moving to the United States, in 2017, to attend Miami Dade, a junior college.
Mayeux instead spent her childhood playing hardball, competing alongside the boys in her hometown of Montigny-le-Bretonneux, west of Paris. And it was as a baseball player that she really started turning heads, most markedly in 2015, when Major League Baseball (MLB) took the historic step of adding the then 16-year-old to its International Registration List.
The first female player to ever be recognized in that way, Mayeux was also the first to play on the French U18 national team, and in the country’s top-division club league, the semi-pro D1. In 2017 she appeared in 23 games for the Montigny Cougars. The previous year she suited up for the Montpellier Barracudas, collecting 12 hits in 35 at bats.
Learning on the job
Taking her talents to the United States, however, meant switching sports and adapting, therefore, to the nuances of playing on a smaller field, with a larger, more pliable ball, and hitting against pitchers with an underhand delivery. On top of that, she had to learn in what was essentially real time, and against far more experienced competition.
Adjust she did, however, and in her first season at Miami Dade College, Mayeux hit a team-leading .377 with eight home runs en route to a first team all-conference nod. She earned the same honor the following year, when she upped her average to .431 and hit six home runs and 10 triples.
That performance set the stage for a new and even bigger challenge: trying to earn her place, as a junior (third-year) transfer student, on a Louisiana squad that was already chock full of proven stars, many of them seniors (fourth-year students).
Mayeux was quick, nevertheless, to prove her worth. After hitting that walk-off home run in the team’s second game of the 2020 season, she went yard again, nine days later, against the arch-rival Louisiana State University Tigers.
“I learned about Mélissa Mayeux today,” Coach Glasco told the Acadiana Advocate, the state’s largest daily newspaper. “Mayeux doesn’t ever have to doubt herself again. She belongs on the field at the top level of college softball.”
If anything, the newcomer was just heating up. In her final 12 appearances, she hit safely in nine, and in the team’s final game before the pandemic put everything to a halt, she went three-for-three, with two home runs and seven RBIs.
Stacked with stars
Needless to say, the abrupt suspension of the season was a huge disappointment for Mayeux and her teammates, especially given the momentum they’d built up. Winners of six of their last seven games, the Cajuns were on a veritable tear.
Still, there was one silver lining: Because of the COVID situation, the players gained an extra year of eligibility. For Mayeux, that means she’s still technically a junior and will thus be able to play not only this season, but in 2022 as well.
“Having an extra year is a real blessing because I wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise to continue with such a high-level team, with players who are All-Americans, who are really world class,” the French infielder explained. “It’s something that’ll help me progress too, on the field but also mentally.”
The eligibility extension is also what makes this season’s Ragin’ Cajuns so deep. Players like Summer (Ellyson) Summers, Julie Rawls, Alissa Dalton and Kaitlyn Alderink — seniors last year — will be returning for one last hurrah. The team has brought on additional talent as well, especially when it comes to transfers. Newcomers include Jenna Kean and Vanessa Foreman from Arizona, and Ciara Bryan and Justice Milz from the University of Georgia.
Mayeux understands that for the team as a whole, the extra depth is a good thing, especially amidst the still present COVID crisis. Health protocols could force any number of players, and at any time, to miss games, so being able to shift women in and out of the various positions may prove to be a real plus.
The downside, of course, is that deserving stars may not get all the playing time they expect. The competition is rude, in other words, as Mayeux is well aware. “Our coach has already let us know that given how strong the team is, he can’t have just one player in each position,” she said. “There’s going to be a lot of rotations compared to other years.”
Still, France’s favorite Ragin’ Cajun is pretty confident that she’ll see some action, if not at third base or shortstop, then hopefully at second.
“We still haven’t gotten word from the coach, but I’ve played well since I got back [from the Christmas holidays in France], so presumably I shouldn’t have to worry too much. At least I hope so,” she added with a chuckle. “At any rate, the main thing is to win.”
Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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