By: DAN McDONALD
LAFAYETTE – Coaches often talk about building a program from scratch … making something from nothing … constructing from the ground up.
Those are almost always metaphors and not to be taken literally … except in the case of Yvette Girouard when she began the Ragin’ Cajun softball program in 1980.
Building from the ground up? Girouard and her first team had to get that ground first.
“We didn’t have the budget for anything like that,” Girouard said. “The players borrowed my dad’s truck and stole sand from somewhere.”
That softball program has now made 28 NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 29 years including 20 straight, has advanced to the Women’s College World Series six times, and can boast 53 All-Americans. By the time the self-proclaimed “little girl from Broussard” finished her Cajun coaching career, she’d gone 759-250 in 20 years and led then-USL to finishes of fifth or better in the country three different times.
She added 526 more victories and two more third-place finishes in the WCWS while at LSU before retiring after the 2011 season. That’s a total of 1,285 wins, still the sixth-most in NCAA softball history, and she’s one of only three coaches to take two different programs to the World Series.
Those numbers alone are staggering and would be more than enough reason for Girouard to be honored this week as a Lifetime Achievement honoree into the Louisiana Athletics Hall of Fame, as part of the university’s Homecoming activities. But in this case, the honor is just as much for the person as it is for the coach.
“A friend heard me talking one day about the impact that Girouard had on all our lives, and how immeasurable it has been,” said Blaise Talbot, one of the earliest players and foundations of the program. “She said I was lucky to have played for her, and she’s right. How lucky are all of us?”
Girouard will be honored along with fellow Lifetime Achievement recipient Gerald Hebert and former student-athletes Damon Mason (football), Anna Petrakova (women’s basketball), Tiffany Clark Gusman (softball) and Scott Dohmann (baseball) as the newest Hall of Fame members.
The group will be inducted into the Louisiana Athletics Hall of Fame on Friday at an evening reception, will be honored during the university’s annual Homecoming parade Saturday morning, and recognized during halftime activities of Saturday’s Homecoming game against New Mexico State at Cajun Field.
Girouard played volleyball for the Cajuns before earning her degree in 1976, and after coaching high school teams and operating her family’s iconic Ton’s Drive-In, she was approached in 1980 about starting a softball program at her alma mater.
“I told them I’d do it for a year,” she said. “We had no salary, no real budget. But my mom finally told me that I was going to do this … that I was born to do this and not serve the public hamburgers.”
Acadiana’s taste buds wound up a little poorer, but Cajun and softball fans soon became much richer from that decision. A 1981 team recruited from already-enrolled students went 7-15 – her first and last non-winning season. A year later, the Cajuns went 15-13. Two years later, they won the Southland Conference.
The first uniforms were hand-me-downs from other sports and matched shirts that were imprinted with “USL.”
“We wore some red shorts and played with P.E. equipment. It developed character,” said Pat Pourciau, the pitcher on that inaugural team. “It’s a humbling experience, and it probably wouldn’t have happened without Yvette.”
Talbot was the first scholarship recipient out of New Iberia Senior High prior to the program’s third year.
“We didn’t have scholarships, but we had kids that loved playing softball,” Girouard said. “They would have done anything just to go to the games.”
The Cajuns had successful seasons through their first decade, but it took 10 years for then-USL to become an overnight national success. They should have been an NCAA Tournament team in 1989 when they went 48-16, and got that invitation one year later when they hosted Florida State and Texas A&M in a 1990 regional.
They also hosted NCAA events in 1991 and 1992, and were sent on the road to Michigan in 1993 for what became a seminal moment. The Cajuns beat Michigan twice in that regional to earn their first WCWS trip.
“No question that was the best moment,” Girouard said. “That will forever be implanted in my brain, to finally get over the hump and do it. It was such a memorable trip. Mike Hess (the athletics groundskeeper) brought dirt with him from Lady Cajun Park and told the girls to each take a handful and throw it at their spot. That way it became our park.
“The Michigan people were freaking out, they thought we were doing some voodoo stuff.”
That voodoo sent Girouard’s team to the pinnacle of college softball, where they went 3-2, beat Arizona and lost a 1-0 game to UCLA in a third-place finish.
“Walking onto the field at Oklahoma City and seeing a sheet of red from the fans in the stands, that was the kind of moment you can’t describe,” Girouard said.
Six other NCAA regionals followed along with two more World Series trips over the next seven years, setting a foundation that has seen the Cajuns reach the NCAA Tournament for 20 straight seasons. But Girouard said those early years still provide her fondest memories.
“It really was a labor of love for a long, long time,” she said. “We enjoyed that success. I see all those former players and they can’t remember the scores to any games, but they sure can remember the stories. The climb, and the first time you get to the top, that’s always so much more fun.”