On Friday Louisiana softball will open its year against Missouri State, playing its first game 11 months after the NCAA shut down all sports in the wake of the Coronavirus.
It was the third straight year the team faced unpredictable hardship.
Last January, in a two-part series, we examined the fallout from Micheal Lotief's firing and Gerri Ann Glasco's tragic death. We couldn't imagine then we'd be writing a third part to this series. But in the midst of a global pandemic, the Cajuns once again proved resilient.
PART THREE: THE LOST SEASON
March 13th, 2020 was the day college sports were flipped upside down.
Alissa Dalton expected to celebrate her birthday with friends and cupcakes before practice; what she didn't expect was to have her season ripped away.
"I know we all went over to someone's house and just sat there and we're all just kind of like staring at each other like, what do we do now? Do we just get up and move on?" said senior shortstop Dalton. "It was devastating honestly."
A global pandemic was the latest blow the program faced. In the fall of 2017 the team faced a breaking point when then head coach Michael Lotief was fired. In 2019, just days before first pitch, assistant coach Gerri Ann Glasco died in a car crash. A lost 2020 season served up another life lesson.
"As a freshman, it seems like the world's ending, you know, but I feel like, as my senior year, you know I lost my senior year, but it could have been a lot worse," said All-American pitcher Summer Ellyson.
"When they take something away from us, you revisit how much how important it is to you," said head coach Gerry Glasco. "I think our team is really committed and, you know, they've just come back with a real mature approach to the game of softball."
Two weeks after the season was halted the NCAA extended to seniors an extra year of eligibility, giving Alissa Dalton, Summer Ellyson, and others a chance to come back. But it was not a slam dunk.
"The low point for me was just trying to decide if I was meant to come back or not," said Ellyson. "Finding my place. Was it my time to find my place in the world or not?"
Many of the Cajuns' seniors did return, including Ellyson, a homegrown star. They all returned to play for one last goal: to win a Women's College World Series title.
"I believe with all my heart that I was meant to stay here for one more year," Ellyson said. "I just had to really, really think about it because I had different things going on. I was getting married, I didn't know whether it was time to start my life with that or finish out and finish strong."
The coronavirus washed away 2020's championship dreams, but there are still many reasons to believe in the team. Maybe it's because they won five games against top-10 teams last year, or because they have an All-American pitcher and depth for days. But perhaps philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said it best "what doesn't kill me, makes me stronger" and the team has proved itself to be more resilient.
"All those things combined to make it a little tougher," said Glasco. "All those things combined to make you who you are."
"I could not have imagined all the stuff we've been through and being where we are today. I could never have imagined. I thought the hardest thing at the time was what we're going through then so it's kind of crazy just to look long-term and see all the things you've been through and all the things we've honestly grown through."
"Those six years have been better than anything else. They've made me who I am," said Ellyson. "I feel like I'm a much better person because of all those experiences."
PART ONE: LIFE AFTER LOTEIF (Written January, 2020)
November 1, 2017 is a day that changed the course of Louisiana softball forever. It's the day the the program imploded.
Facing allegations of verbal and physical abuse, Louisiana fired head softball coach Michael Lotief. He and some former players called the move retaliation for Lotief raising Title IX allegations against the school.
"It's surreal how cold-hearted it's been. It's surreal how unfactual it's been," Lotief expressed at a press conference at the time.
Suspended in October, fired in November. In a matter of weeks Lotief went from beloved head coach to fired. And many of the players went with him.
"I think as a whole, we decided we either want to transfer or not play at all this season," said former All-American Aleah Craighton moments after the team was informed of Lotief's dismissal. She was one of more than a dozen players who left the team. In a matter of days the Cajuns' softball program, one of the best in the country, was crumbling.
But in stepped the knight in sunglasses and a ball cap.
Three weeks after firing Lotief, Louisiana hired Gerry Glasco, a former Texas A&M assistant. A college softball coach told me at the time that Gerry was the real deal. That was spot on.
Coach Glasco has been a hit with the fans, the media and his players.
"You feel like he cares about you more than just a player, but as a person," said senior outfielder Sarah Hudek. "He's someone I can go to for softball things, but personal things as well."
The Cajuns didn't miss a beat in 2018. Summer Ellyson emerged as one of the country's top pitchers. The team won 41 games, advancing to the Baton Rouge Regional final. The Cajuns weren't back. They never left.
"I think you have to tip your hat to the kids that stayed in that 2018 season. They were a bunch of gritty fighters," said Coach Glasco. "That's a credit to the program, the history of the program. They knew how to win."
A major key to Louisiana's success was the use of the transfer portal. The Cajuns brought in several new players that season, like Brittany Rodriguez and Alissa Dalton.
"We lost 13 or 14 transfers in the coaching change. Because we lost so much we had to rely on that same market. Giveth and taketh," Glasco says with a chuckle. "And because we gaveth a lot, we had to taketh a lot more back."
He went back to that well in 2019, landing Sarah Hudek, Keeli Milligan and Julie Rawles. The stage was set for an even bigger season. But before it could even begin, tragedy struck just days before it started.
PART TWO: GERI ANN
On January 24, 2019, just two weeks before Louisiana softball opened the season, tragedy struck the program right in the heart when Geri Ann Glasco died in a car accident on I-10.
She was team assistant and daughter to head coach Gerry Glasco.
"I remember at the funeral saying, 'I don't know if I can coach,'" he recalls, just days before the one year anniversary of Geri Ann's death. "I question if I could go back and coach because it seemed unimportant."
"There is not a rule book on how to deal with something so tragic. No parent should have to go through that," added senior outfielder Sarah Hudek. "For him to come out here and worry about being a head coach. It just goes to show how strong he is as a man and a coach."
Geri Ann's death rocked the university and softball community. That season was one of the hardest on Gerry.
"I didn't want to argue with umpires last year because I was afraid I might lose control. When I argue, normally I'm under control. It might not always look like it, but I know exactly what I'm doing," he said. "I was afraid I'd lose control. But I wanted to win as bad as I ever wanted to win."
And the Cajuns did win - a lot.
Louisiana won 52 games, the program's first 50-win season since 2012. The team came within two outs of winning the Oxford Regional but for a second straight year, it was a disappointing end to an emotional season.
2020 is a chance for redemption, a chance to make a championship run. Preseason polls rank the team 8th in the nation. Who is better to carry the weight of those expectations than a team that's been to hell and back, twice.
A team that has been tested like few others.
"Life isn't always easy, but your job when we step on the ball field, that's our refuge. I tell them, when we walk into the dugout, walk onto the field, let this be our refuge. All we have to do is play a game. A little game of softball," Glasco said. "They have done that extremely well and will continue to do that."
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