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UL Athletics: Year in Review, Bruce Brown article in Dec. 31 Advertiser

UL Athletics: Year in Review, Bruce Brown article in Dec. 31 Advertiser

Controversy, progress reign
Bizarre coach searches in men’s hoops, and softball success top UL list in 2004

Bruce Brown

A year that began with one former Ragin’ Cajun leading his team to the Super Bowl and ended with another having a hand in NFL history can’t be all bad, and the University of Louisiana had its share of athletic highlights in 2004.

When Jake Delhomme left the New Orleans Saints in 2003 to join the Carolina Panthers, he was seeking a chance to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. He and the Panthers caught fire and rode that momentum all the way to a Super Bowl appearance against New England, losing a classic 32-29.

Wide receiver Brandon Stokley, who for two years caught passes from Delhomme with the Ragin’ Cajuns, sought a new horizon of his own when he went from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 2003. By the time the 2004 season arrived, Stokley was a big part of a record-setting Colts offense led by Peyton Manning.

It was Stokley who caught Manning’s NFL-record 49th touchdown pass of the season the day after Christmas, carving his name into the record books with his quarterback.

There were other positives, such as a return to NCAA Tournament play in men’s basketball, newfound success in women’s basketball, 60 victories in softball, major steps forward in facilities improvements and booming attendance in football.

But, sadly, one of the year’s major stories revolved around controversy involving the basketball program.


Jessie Evans’ final UL team posted a 20-9 record that included a second Sun Belt Conference championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament to go with the one his Cajuns posted in the 1999-2000 campaign.

Such on-the-court success came despite repeated shortcomings in the classroom, as Cajun athletes faced frequent loss of early-season action while they got their academics in order.

Still, Evans was courted by the University of San Francisco and left to lead that program _ prompting a coaching search for the Cajuns.

Oklahoma State assistant coach Glynn Cyprien was the eventual choice, and came to town preaching academic progress and accountability. Then after two months on the job, inaccuracies were discovered in Cyprien’s resume’ and he was fired by Athletic Director Nelson Schexnayder.

By year’s end, Cyprien had filed suit against the university over the firing.

Nine-year staff veteran Robert Lee, who had served as an assistant under both Marty Fletcher and Evans, was retained by Cyprien after being a finalist in the selection process.

It was Lee who was chosen to take over the Cajuns in July after Cyprien’s firing, and Lee immediately set to work to change the image of the program. By the time the fall semester was complete, the Cajuns had produced the best classroom performance by the men’s basketball program in 20 years.

On the court, the Cajuns battled through a brutal early schedule and an injury to point guard Orien Greene, following newcomer Tiras Wade to a 5-5 mark that had them eager for more success in the Sun Belt Conference chase.


Louisiana was handed a difficult assignment in the 2004 NCAA Softball Tournament, assigned a No. 5 seed and sent westward to a regional hosted by Arizona, the No. 1 team in the nation.

But a little challenge never ruffled the Cajuns before, and coach Stefni Lotief’s squad left a memorable impression as they came up one victory short of returning to the Women’s College World Series.

The Cajuns followed junior pitching ace Brooke Mitchell to a 5-2 mark in regional action, including a 5-0 shutout of No. 1 Arizona. And, with their backs to the wall from an earlier loss to Arizona, the Cajuns pounded No. 21 Oklahoma 12-4 to force a deciding game.

They ran out of gas in a 15-0 defeat in the regional final, but still completed a 60-8 season – a school record for victories – and Mitchell put together another All-American year with a 45-5 record and a UL record 524 strikeouts.

UL then reloaded with five commitments in the early signing period to amplify a 2005 team that returns virtually intact from 2004.


Ever since the incomparable exploits of Kim Perrot in the late 1980’s, Ragin’ Cajun women’s basketball has struggled to find both an identity and victories.

That began to change in 2004.

The Cajuns’ Anna Petrakova was named the Player of the Year in the Sun Belt Conference after averaging 18.6 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. It was a staggering achievement for a program with such a downtrodden history.

Petrakova went on to hone her game further in summer international play, then returned to find that coach J. Kelley Hall had surrounded her with more talent for her senior campaign.

If anything, Petrakova was even better in the early stages of the 2004-2005 season, but with more talent and a deeper understanding of Hall’s system, the Cajuns constructed a 9-3 record with one game remaining in the year.


When Lawrence Willis was an athlete at Iota High School, he was so versatile he rarely had time to focus on one sport.

That changed when he got to UL, though, as Willis found focus in the triple jump in track and field.

Willis capped his collegiate career in rare fashion, finishing as the best triple jumper in school history behind Ndabe Mudhlongwa.

A third All-American honor came Willis’s way when he placed third in the NCAA Outdoor Championships with a 54-8 1/4 jump.

That kind of showing got Willis invited to the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, with a chance to make the team for the games in Athens. He posted a career-best 55-7, which was good enough for fifth place and a near-miss for the U.S. squad.


One former Ragin’ Cajun track and field star who knew a thing or two about All-American honors and Olympic competition was Hollis Conway.

Conway was a silver medalist at the Seoul Games in 1988, then came back four years later to earn a bronze medal at Barcelona in 1992 as the top three finishers all posted the same height. He nearly missed yet a third chance at the Olympics in 1996.

Conway’s NCAA titles, American high jump records and Olympic excellence earned him easy entry into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame by overwhelming vote of that hall’s selection panel.

Conway joined the list of Louisiana immortals in induction ceremonies in the summer.


Coach Rickey Bustle’s Ragin’ Cajun football program entered the 2004 season full of hope after winning four of its last five games in 2003 and looking at a more forgiving schedule.

But the Cajuns played a game of "what-if" for much of the season.

UL finished 4-7, only fractionally better than the 4-8 of a year before, but four of the seven setbacks came by agonizing margins of 4, 3, 3 and 3 points.

The Cajuns battled their way to a 4-4 record after eight games, in position to compete for a Sun Belt Conference title, a winning season and a bowl bid.

But they lost a 27-17 home game to Sun Belt champion North Texas on national TV, then dropped consecutive 13-10 decisions to Troy at home and at UL Monroe in the season finale.

Losing margins in UL’s 2003 season averaged 25.3 points per game, then dropped to 8.0 in 2004. The biggest defeat was a 40-20 setback at Big 12 member Kansas State in which the Cajuns had a chance to win.

There were signs of progress, as safety C.C. Brown was invited to play in the Hula Bowl and Jerry Babb got another year of experience running the UL offense. Bustle’s coaches had also rounded up 14 verbal commitments by Christmas.

But perhaps the most positive sign came from the fans. Faced with new attendance requirements to remain Division 1-A, the fans responded with home crowds of 22,117, 25,083, 23,121, 21,608 and 15,077 at 31,000-seat Cajun Field.

Clearly, the fans believe Bustle will get the job done.


Louisiana’s athletic complex on Reinhardt Drive was built in 1971, and had not been given significant improvements since that time.

But 2004 changed the look and feel of Ragin’ Cajun athletics.

The main building hardly looks like the outdated, cramped facility visitors saw for years. In its place is a building featuring expansive new football locker rooms, an extensive sports medicine facility and a modern, functional area for the equipment staff.

Sports medicine alone tripled its working space to better serve Ragin’ Cajun athletes in all sports.

Numerous other improvements have been made with contributions sparked by the hiring of Gerald Hebert for athletic development. Each venue has received new signage, facelift or other improvements in the ongoing project.

By the end of 2004, concrete progress had been made on the new Cajun Track/Soccer Stadium on Bertrand Drive.

When the 2004-2005 basketball season is finished, Earl K. Long Gym on campus will get a new floor which will benefit both Ragin’ Cajun women’s basketball and volleyball teams.

Added to the multi-purpose indoor practice facility that will sit on football practice fields next to Ragin’ Cajun Softball Park, currently in the planning stages, Cajun athletics got a new look in 2004.


Crippling injuries spoiled Sun Belt title hopes for coach Tony Robichaux’s Cajun baseball squad, which still advanced to the finals of the Sun Belt Tournament before losing to Middle Tennessee for a 34-23 record.

Junior third baseman Dallas Morris was the team’s triple crown winner with 12 home runs, 51 RBI and a .373 batting average, but he, too, was bothered by injuries. Morris was an All-Louisiana and All-South Central Region pick and will enter the 2005 season on the Brooks Wallace Award watch list which is presented to the nation’s top player by the College Baseball Foundation.

Cajun first baseman Philip Hawke earned honors during 2004 summer ball, being named the Most Valuable Player and All-Star Game MVP in the Northwoods League while playing for the Waterloo (Iowa) Bucks.


UL’s Ragin’ Cajun men’s tennis team reached the finals of the Sun Belt Tournament before losing to South Alabama. Sophomore Evgheni Corduneanu posted an 18-6 singles record in the spring and was an All-Sun Belt performer.

The Cajun men’s cross country team was aiming for more than a near-miss in the autumn, as the squad won the school’s first cross country title since 1974.

Freshman Jake Simmons and senior Walter Whitfield were the leaders of the standout Cajun team.


Ragin’ Cajun fans always knew Jake Delhomme could play quarterback in the NFL, and he proved it with his remarkable first year as a starter in Carolina as the Panthers came within 3 points of an NFL title.

Delhomme took charge at halftime of the 2003 opener and never looked back on the way to the Super Bowl against New England.

The picture changed in the 2004 season, as numerous injuries crippled the defending NFC champions. The Panthers staggered to a 1-7 first half of the year, but Delhomme and his teammates refused to buckle and got back on track.

Entering the final game of the season, the 7-8 Panthers were preparing to host Delhomme’s old team, the 7-8 New Orleans Saints, to get back into the NFL playoffs. Through 15 games he had hit 286-of-483 passes for 3,579 yards and 27 touchdowns.

Former battery mate Brandon Stokley, who won a Super Bowl ring in his second year in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens in 2000, suffered through an injury-plagued 2003 season in his first year with Indianapolis.

Still, as the slot receiver for the Colts and good friend Peyton Manning, Stokley was in the perfect offense. One day after Christmas, Stokley caught Manning’s 49th touchdown pass of 2004 – breaking Dan Marino’s 20-year-old NFL record – in a 34-31 overtime win over San Diego.

Stokley, with 68 catches for 1,077 yards and 10 scores, also joined Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne as the first NFL receiving trio with 1,000 yards and 10-plus TD’s apiece.

The only thing that could have been better would have been Delhomme throwing to Stokley on a title team. One day, they may meet in the Super Bowl.

Originally published December 31, 2004