Many of us in south Louisiana are highly emotional. Yvette Girouard is no different. We also can't go a week or even a day without some kind of sports in our life. She too has lived and breathed athletics from the time she was a tiny girl. On Sunday afternoon at LSU's immaculate softball palace, nearly 1,500 fans stayed after yet another Lady Tiger victory to tell that retiring head coach "thank you". And LSU's season isn't over yet. It could end up being another special one before all is said and done. After all, a once morbid squad, who she described as "a team lost in the desert" after a 7-0 rout at the hands of Southern Miss … has now won 12 straight games and 23 of their last 26.
It must be the coaching.
In the big business world of major college athletics, LSU's annual athletic budget has soared to a staggering number … a number over $80 million dollars per year. Poor Yvette Girouard built a powerhouse softball program at USL on just $3,000 per season. $3,000? Is that even enough cash to throw a party in a Tiger Stadium suite these days? Indeed, Girouard had very little monetary support in the early 80's as a young, driven coach trying to make her sport matter. But she did have determined visions for the program….visions that included a beautiful park, recruiting future All-American players and coaching those stars to numerous trips to the Women's College World Series. All of those dreams were accomplished, even as the coach mowed her own field and washed the uniforms herself. By 1988 the Lady Cajuns finished nationally ranked. Two years later they were in the NCAA tournament. And in 1993, USL made their first of three trips to the WCWS under Girouard's watch. While Ragin Cajun basketball reached it's share of NCAA tournaments and actually won some games at the "Big Dance" in the early 90's, and while Brian Mitchell, Jake Delhomme and Brandon Stokley likewise brought exciting moments to the USL football program…no one delivered more national respect to their athletics program than Yvette Girouard. To this day, Ragin' Cajun softball has easily been the school's most consistent, highly regarded sport. And it's not even close.
What Sue Gunter meant to women's college basketball in the state of Louisiana, Yvette Girouard has meant to women's college softball. Critics told both of them nobody cared about their silly "girls' sports". Yet Gunter and Girouard stubbornly and relentlessly pushed forward. It took years…but the big crowds, pristine facilities and national exposure eventually came.
Following the 2000 season and another stellar 45-15 season in Acadiana, Girouard did what many thought was the unthinkable. To say it was a Boston Red Sox to New York Yankees move might be a bit strong, but it's pretty accurate. The beloved Ragin Cajun was now wearing Purple and "Canary Yellow" as USL fans would say. Yvette Girouard was the head coach of the LSU softball program, the same bunch she fought tooth and nail for years to bring down. As a young intern at KLFY-TV and attending USL at the time, I still remember being sent to interview Girouard the day after the Cajuns had been swept by hated LSU at home. I was the low man taking the spear, because certainly no one else wanted to see an unpleasant Girouard after losing two to "The Evil Empire". To this day, the coach also reminds me she actually watched "The Doucet/Begnaud Football Report" on the Acadiana Open Channel during the fall of 1998. I teamed up with best friend Taylor Begnaud to do a one hour, live show as my TV career got started. Needless to say, our history goes back. And she perhaps had nothing better to do on Thursday nights from 8:30-9:30.
Time flies and suddenly we're in the year 2011. Yvette Girouard is retiring from coaching this season and has likewise led the Lady Tigers to their share of big moments during her nearly 11 years in Baton Rouge. LSU reached the College World Series in 2001 & 2004. Even though the Lady Tigers haven't been back since then, which Girouard admits is very disappointing, there still have been some stellar seasons. LSU finished 55-14, then 55-12 in 2006 and 2007 respectively, reaching the Super Regionals both seasons. Even the somewhat "down" years really haven't be bad at all, as the Lady Tigers have finished in the Top 20 each of the last three years.
The biggest disappointments naturally have been the recent postseason losses to arch-rival UL-Lafayette. The Ragin Cajuns beat LSU twice in the 2008 NCAA Tournament 9-4 and 6-3 to end the Lady Tigers season. Those games were also two of the final contests at the old, not beloved Lady Tiger Park. ULL got the best of LSU again last year 1-0 in the NCAA Tournament at the new Lady Tiger Park, advancing to the Super Regionals. Food poisoning would've been a more pleasant option for LSU fans, than watching the rowdy bunch in Vermilion and White party in the Lady Tigers' house.
We're not going to stir the pot. We're not going to get into the bad blood between the two schools. We're not going to talk about the new episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" being shot concerning the missing Girouard plaque at Lady Cajun Park. But like it or not … the two teams are indeed on a collision course again. And did you really expect anything else? #24 UL-Lafayette just wrapped up their 10th conference title in 11 years, sitting with an overall record of 44-9. The bigger question seems to be not IF they meet, but WHERE. Will Yvette Girouard have to take her LSU team to Lafayette for the NCAA tournament? The committee members who will form the NCAA Tournament brackets are very aware of the history and storylines, don't worry. They know how captivating and juicy the theater will be. They might actually be talking about it right now. But that's for another day. That, and Coach Girouard is probably reading this right now and is about to give me a stern call.
Can this LSU team send the coach out right? In a way the Lady Tigers already have, rebounding from that horrific 0-6 SEC start to finish 19-9 in conference play. But is LSU good enough to beat elite teams in the postseason? The Lady Tigers indeed swept #1 Alabama at home … but they were also swept by Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, to the tune of 0-8 in those affairs. Brittany Mack will simply have to be dynamite in the circle, the defense must continue to be stellar and the offense must find a away to generate runs against star pitching.
No matter what happens however, "Coach G" has forever left her mark. Did losing to Tulane in the Super Regional to Tulane in his final season affect Skip Bertman's legacy? Not really. It's all lagniappe from this point for Yvette Girouard.
But a storybook finish would certainly be nice.