Wednesday, May 1, 2013
|Photos by Brad Kemp/Ragincajuns.com|
|Former players extend a warm welcome home to Lamson Park: coach Michael Lotief, Angie Trahan,
Blaise Talbot, Susan Williams, Stefni Lotief, Yvette Girouard, Kyla Hall-Holas,
Donna Crooks-Delahoussaye, Tiffany Whittal-Harris
There's no chasm that can't be bridged, but it usually takes people on both sides doing their part in order to build something meaningful.
Often, it doesn't take too long and doesn't take a lot of effort to span the gap. It just takes the desire.
Yvette Girouard and Michael Lotief both wanted the back-biting, the hostility and the ugly sores that festered between the UL and LSU softball programs to end. It had gone on long enough, an unlucky 13 years, since the time Girouard took the absolutely necessary career step to leave the Ragin' Cajun program she'd birthed and nurtured for 20 years and relocate her immense coaching talents an hour east on Interstate 10.
That move didn't sit well with many, mostly with UL fans and supporters who were embittered, who felt jilted and abandoned by one of their own. It didn't matter to them that Girouard nearly tripled her annual salary when she accepted LSU's head softball position, and through the intricacies of the state system insured herself a quantum-leap retirement income for the rest of her life.
The nay-sayers became prophets when relationships deteriorated between the programs, to the point that two nationally prominent programs each became invisible to the other.
There was Girouard's ill-advised letter to Cajun fans shortly after taking the LSU post. There was a mysterious sign disappearance at then-Lady Cajun Park. There were even accusations of theft and other malfeasance.
There were the student-athletes. Players who were high school standouts in Lafayette and Acadiana were recruited and signed by Girouard and LSU. Players from the Baton Rouge prep ranks joined the Cajun program. That's reality in collegiate athletics, but every such instance brought about more dirt-slinging. And, during Girouard's dozen years at LSU, a handful of players saw action in both programs, which created a whirlwind of hot-stove-league conversation.
There was much ado made when particular players weren't released from their scholarships at one place to attend and be immediately eligible at the other, notably Kaplan's Courtney Hollier. But it's common practice for all schools - those who have invested time and resources into the education and athletic development of their student-athletes - to deny immediate releases to conference or nearby rivals, and it is a fact that several players (Vanessa Soto and Lafayette's Lauren Castle, among others) moved from LSU to UL and vice versa without being forced by their former schools to sit out a year.
Is it right or proper to blame either party?
"We're competitive, she's competitive, that happens," Lotief says. "We're all flawed ... I know that better than anybody. But when you're in coaching, you can appreciate when someone gives their whole life to this. She [Girouard] spent her whole life out here, she sacrificed for this program, she was the pioneer, the one who fought for equity when women athletes didn't have these kind of opportunities."
"I made some mistakes," Girouard admits. "Are there things I wish hadn't happened? Definitely."
The Atchafalaya Basin's softball bridge had been burned so many times, many people - a lot with allegiances on both sides of the chasm - thought it could never be fixed.
But differences and egos can't keep passion bottled up for very long. Passions for the sport, passion for the program, passion for returning home - those passions eventually led to third-party ideas, which led to interventions, which led to discussions, which led to an emotional April afternoon at UL's Lamson Park.
The image of Girouard walking toward the pitching circle - a walk she made thousands of times over 35 coaching years at Lafayette High, Comeaux High, UL and LSU - symbolically closed that gap. And when she brought her ceremonial first pitch to home plate (high and away, but nobody was going to play umpire at that moment), she symbolically brought 20 years of former Cajun players back into the fold.
"It was kind of surreal," Girouard said during what became an easy twinbill sweep of a good Houston team that day. "It's been a tough 13 years."
That it has, for her, and notably for the 20 years' worth of UL teams she coached. Many of those players tried to keep a cleat on both sides of that chasm, only to fail one or the other. Almost to a woman, they were torn between love of their coach and love of their program, and many felt they had been abandoned by one or the other.
Girouard, for one, felt abandoned by her program, her alma mater, her hometown. She regularly came back to the home she kept and still has in Broussard, but public appearances on those trips were rare. She tried to go to a couple of UL football games not long after taking the LSU post, only to be chastised by loud-mouthed "fans." She wanted badly to attend the New Orleans Bowls the last two years, to see her alma mater play its first-ever Division I bowl games, but didn't think she'd be accepted.
During Girouard's inner turmoil, Lotief had his own struggles. He needed to reunite three and a half decades of players and memories, and he couldn't fully do that without the program's founder, the "grandmother" of the program, as jovial public address announcer Robert Harris referred to Girouard.
Thirteen years of bitterness doesn't just vanish. But when intermediaries finally gathered the two, and they began to talk about the future, they found their goals weren't that different.
The hastily organized April ceremony isn't a one-time deal. Anyone who checks Girouard's Facebook page will see the call to all former UL players, particularly those who played under Girouard from 1981-2000, to save the dates for a reunion weekend in early November. Three days of activities are already planned, highlighted by golf, social gatherings and a full-scale alumni game. Girouard and Lotief are planning and hoping for the biggest party in the program's history.
"I tell our kids that you can always come home," Lotief said.
And if anyone thought Girouard wasn't back home on that special April afternoon, 1,285 collegiate victories after being challenged to start a Title IX-fulfilling program with few players and less resources, they must not have noticed the tear tracks. Surely they noticed the red shorts that Girouard dug out of a buried-but-not-forgotten drawer.
"There's no way to tell everyone how glad I am to be here," she said, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.