How DJ Sanders went from an unknown recruit to college softball’s best hitter
By Kayla Lombardo Apr 19, 2017
It wasn’t long ago that DJ Sanders’ name sat at the bottom of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette softball stat sheet. In fact, it was just two years ago, during Sanders’ freshman season with the Ragin’ Cajuns, that her .290 batting average was the lowest of any everyday starter on the perennially potent ULL roster.
“When I first got here, fielding was pretty much all that I could do,” Sanders, a shortstop, told Excelle Sports. “I felt more comfortable in the field than I did hitting, so it was harder for me to adjust on the offensive side.”
Recruited primarily for her defensive abilities, the Columbus, Miss. native wasn’t expected to become the anchor of ULL’s lineup. Though she was always sure-handed in the field, which earned her a starting spot as a freshman, Sanders wasn’t the kind of blue-chip recruit who receives myriad scholarship offers and has her pick of the Power Five programs. At one point during her recruiting process, she even considered playing basketball before committing to ULL.
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“DJ didn’t come from a storied background,” ULL head coach Michael Lotief told Excelle Sports. “We knew we were getting an incredible athlete and a very competitive personality when she came here, but she needed to have some skill development. She needed a structured program and a set of mechanics to bring out her athleticism.”
The potential Lotief saw in Sanders has since helped produce one of the finest power seasons ever for the No. 17 Ragin’ Cajuns (32–6). Following a solid sophomore campaign, in which she hit 18 home runs, Sanders has upped her game even more this year as a junior. Through 38 contests, she has blasted a nation-leading 23 home runs, including six grand slams, tying the NCAA single-season record last reached by former Cajun Christi Orgeron. Her .391 batting average and 60 RBIs also lead ULL this season.
And after one of ULL’s all-time great sluggers, Lexie Elkins, graduated last year—going No. 1 in the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) draft—Sanders is unquestionably the leader of a Ragin’ Cajuns squad that, to date, has won 34 straight Sun Belt Conference series. Before last Saturday’s loss to Texas State, Sanders had led ULL to a 14–0 record in conference this year, which marked the team’s second-best start in program history.
“In my judgment, she’s probably the best hitter in the country right now,” said Lotief, who has been at the helm of ULL’s program since 2002. “I’m not just talking about her power numbers. I’m talking about all that she’s been able to do at the plate and what she’s able to do against top-notch pitching.”
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When asked about her transformation from average to extraordinary, Sanders gives all the credit to Lotief, whose unique hitting approach has given him a reputation as a magician of sorts in the college softball coaching ranks. Often imparting the split-grip method on his hitters, in which a batter’s hands spread apart on the bat handle, Lotief emphasizes power as the ultimate objective of the swing.
He is responsible for the development and later preeminence of some of Division I’s most underrated recruits, including Elkins, Orgeron, Holly Tankersley and Danyele Gomez. Through 15 seasons, Lotief has taken ULL to three Women’s College World Series and seven super regionals, which is typically uncharted territory for an underfunded mid-major program.
“Coach Mike [Lotief] has really helped me develop into the hitter I am now,” Sanders said. “If I had gone anywhere else, I’d probably be sitting on the bench right now. I really don’t know what else I would have done. He has really helped me out a lot.”
While Sanders has undoubtedly benefitted from Lotief’s teaching, he insists that her success is primarily the byproduct of her development off of the softball field.
“She’s not a ‘me’ person. She’s a people person,” Lotief said. “To get an athlete that’s that competitive and gets after it like she does, and then doesn’t want the spotlight on her and is someone who cares deeply about the people around her—it’s very rare that you get an athlete like her.”