There they were ... the three pillars that provided the foundation for UL's most successful national sports program, lined up in the pitching circle at Lamson Park Wednesday afternoon before the Ragin' Cajuns' softball doubleheader against Houston.
Kyla Hall Holas was first, and even wearing the uniform of the opposition wasn't a hindrance to the Cajun faithful. After all, they remember when Houston's highly-successful head coach was Kyla Hall, and remember when she single-handedly beat mighty UCLA with her arm and her bat during UL's first-ever trip to the Women's College World Series.
Stefni Lotief was next to walk to the circle, an area just as well known to her. After all, she was a first – the first All-America pick, a first-team All-American pitcher, not to mention a GTE Academic All-America back when she was Stefni Whitton and had yet to begin a 12-season run as coach of the Cajun program.
But it was the third person to make that walk – one she'd been making for 35 years at UL and LSU – that had local sports fans buzzing for two days.
And with those 20 steps, Yvette Girouard was home.
"It was kind of surreal," Girouard said after she threw out the ceremonial first pitch in what became a two-game 9-1, 10-5 Cajun rout of a solid Cougar program. "It's been a tough 13 years."
|Photo by Brad Kemp/UL Sports|
That it has, for her, and for many others, most notably the 20 years worth of teams that she nurtured from infancy to elite. When the only coach in the program's history left after the 2000 season to take over the LSU squad – nearly tripling her salary and insuring future retirement options – that group was torn between love of their coach and love of their program.
There was also ugliness. There were accusations, back-biting, mud-slinging ... things that turned what could have been a spirited and fun rivalry into something repulsive. Girouard kept, and still has, her home in Broussard, but when she'd come to visit, it was quiet and without fanfare.
And only twice did she drive down Cajundome Boulevard, past Lamson Park. One was for an NCAA Regional in 2002 when LSU played here, the other more recent to take a look at the renovated faciity, and even then, she couldn't get too close.
"It hurt too much," she says.
She came back to a couple of football games, in part to see former players and friends including long-time Cajun football coach Nelson Stokley, but grew tired of the occasional fan venting at her expense. She wanted to attend the last two New Orleans Bowls, but she didn't think it was proper even though her alma mater was celebrating a seminal moment in its athletic history.
Instead, she enjoyed retirement the past two years, traveling, doing some TV softball gigs and fishing almost every day on the lake that backs up to her Baton Rouge home. ("My daddy would have loved this," she said of her lakeside digs. "I always wanted to live on the water.")
Thirteen years of bitterness on both sides aren't swept away in seconds, but a lot of clean-up was done Wednesday. Current Cajun coach Michael Lotief, married to his former co-head coach, knew it was time for the ugliness to end, and went to great lengths to point out this was no one-time deal. Future gatherings and reunions are going to center around the lady that's just "Girouard" to her friends and former players.
"We're competitive, she's competitive, that happens," Lotief said Wednesday. "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.
"And she's a Cajun. She's one of us. We're all flawed, and I know that better than anyone. But that's what Cajuns do. We embrace our own, and I tell our kids that you can always come home."
Sometimes the road home is bumpy, even for a coach who is already in two different Halls of Fame and will surely join Kyla Hall Holas in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame as soon as she hits the age-60 eligibility in 13 months.
She certainly didn't look that age Wednesday, even though public address announcer Robert Harris – whose wife Tiffany was an All-American catcher, another early rock in the program Girouard founded, and the recipient of Wednesday's ceremonial first pitch – referred to her as the "grandmother" of the program.
Instead, Girouard had the look of a coach that won 1,285 collegiate softball games before retiring two years ago. She endured almost that many hugs throughout the afternoon and evening, and it didn't take much to tell that she didn't know whether to laugh or cry, since the words were occasionally hard to form.
"I'm here, and it feels awesome," she said not long after she and others provided that special on-field moment, and even though she didn't say too much, the red shorts that she dug out of a buried-but-not-forgotten drawer spoke volumes.
"I was proud to put these back on," she said.
Not as proud as the rest of us.