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YEAR IN REVIEW: Cajuns Blazed New Trails This Year

YEAR IN REVIEW: Cajuns Blazed New Trails This Year

YEAR IN REVIEW: Cajuns Blazed New Trails This Year

Dan McDonald


Like everything else on the Gulf Coast, the University of Louisiana’s 2005 athletic year was dominated by two names – Katrina and Rita.
The twin sisters of hurricane destruction unleashed their wrath more to the east and west of Acadiana, but the residual effects were felt by the Ragin’ Cajun programs for the last five months – and are still being felt.

UL’s football team missed practice time and had its season finale backed up one week as part of a four-team date swap. Four weeks later, its Cajun Field home hosted the relocated New Orleans Bowl.

The Cajun basketball team lost its home, being pushed out of the Cajundome to allow its use as an emergency shelter, and still hasn’t played a game in the facility. The golf team canceled a tournament trip with travel issues and the cross country teams had to go to another location for the Sun Belt Conference meet.
The twin tragedies delayed an athletic director search and a final resolution of NCAA inquiries into the basketball program. They also created problems in an already-stretched Cajun athletic budget.

But life went on, and the games went on. Many of them provided memorable moments, and the most noteworthy are in the Daily Advertiser’s top 10 Ragin’ Cajun headlines for 2005:

1 Cajun football rallies with late winning streak for Sun Belt crown

It had been a decade since the Cajun football squad had even compiled a winning record, much less win a conference championship. And with a 1-5 mid-October record, it appeared that "wait ’till next year" was again a year away.

But five straight wins to end the season provided a final 6-5 record, the first winning season since 1995. More importantly, all five of those wins came in Sun Belt Conference play, and the 5-2 league record was good enough to claim a share of UL’s first-ever Sun Belt title.

Three of those five wins came on the road, a big bugaboo to previous UL squads.

The Cajuns missed out on a bid to the New Orleans Bowl on its Cajun Field home turf, eliminated on a new interpretation of the league tiebreaker, but that hardly dampened a season in which UL led the Sun Belt in nine offensive categories and finished as the nation’s seventh-best rushing team.

Freshman Tyrell Fenroy became the first running back in Cajun history to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark and was named Freshman of the Year in both the Sun Belt and Louisiana.

2 Women’s basketball team shocks by winning Sun Belt West crown

It had been 17 years since Louisiana had a winning season in women’s basketball.

But the Cajuns did that and more in coach J. Kelley Hall’s third year at the helm, equaling the school record for victories with 22, finishing 22-9, posting a perfect 13-0 record at home, winning the Sun Belt Western Division and reaching the championship finals of the Sun Belt Tournament.

The season’s peak was the final regular-season weekend, when the Cajuns beat Arkansas-Little Rock 59-47 to clinch a tie for the West and then edged Arkansas State 66-64 to take the West outright and finish 13-0 at home.

Hall was named the Sun Belt Coach of the Year after UL was the only league school with 20 victories in the regular season. The leader of the resurgence was senior Anna Petrakova, the Player of the Year in the Sun Belt as a junior who repeated as an all-conference honoree and was on the All-Tournament Team at the Sun Belt Tournament.

3 Nelson Schexnayder resigns post as athletic director after 12 years

Nelson Schexnayder helped lead the Cajuns to unprecedented growth and achievement during 12 years as the school’s athletic director, but he resigned on July 26. The former Cajun wide receiver and member of the last bowl team at the school took over as acting A.D. in 1993 and was given the reins on a permanent bases one year later.

During his time at the helm, Schexnayder hired Tony Robichaux as baseball coach, Stefni Lotief to coach softball, Jessie Evans and Robert Lee in basketball, Hall in women’s basketball and Rickey Bustle in football.

All of those coaches enjoyed success on the field, with baseball reaching the College World Series in 2000, softball reaching the WCWS in 2003, basketball reaching the NCAA Tournament, women’s basketball equaling a school record for wins in 2005 with 22 and football finishing 6-5 as Sun Belt champions in 2005.

The school also made major strides in improvement of facilities under Schexnayder, despite being hamstrung by a $7 million athletic budget and competing against schools with budgets much higher.

UL’s plans to replace Schexnayder included naming David Walker interim A.D. while a search was conducted. But the devastation caused by Katrina and Rita forced a statewide hiring freeze, postponing the search until 2006.

4 Robert Lee has Cajun men’s basketball team back in NCAA again

Robert Lee hit the ground running when he finally got the opportunity to lead the Ragin’ Cajun basketball program. The long-time assistant was twice passed over for the head job before being promoted after Glynn Cyprien’s firing for fraudulent credentials in 2004.

The 2004-2005 Cajuns responded to Lee’s leadership with a 20-11 record and a second straight Sun Belt championship, earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament before falling to Louisville 68-62 in regional play in Nashville, Tenn.

Junior wingman Tiras Wade was the team’s leading scorer with a 20.3-point average, and he raised his game to carry the Cajuns to the Sun Belt Tournament title by scoring 27 points in a 71-57 win over Middle Tennessee, 25 as UL beat Florida International 80-69 and then pouring in 30 points in the 88-69 title-game triumph over Denver.

Wade was named the tournament MVP, then turned professional after the season concluded. Orien Greene also entered the pro ranks and made the Boston Celtics roster.

5Men’s basketball team endures allegations by recruit, NCAA questions

On the court, the Ragin’ Cajun basketball team enjoyed a championship campaign. Off the court was another matter.

UL was visited by the NCAA in April after former recruit Berry Jordan leveled charges against the school. In June, Jordan said he received money and other benefits including housing from Lee’s coaching staff and that his college transcript listed UL classes that he did not attend.

NCAA assistant director of enforcement Dan Matheson conducted a series of interviews with members of the UL program, and follow-up interviews were pushed back by the arrival of Katrina and Rita.

Final resolution of the inquiry is still pending, and the Cajun program continues competing in its 2005-2006 season with the NCAA questions still unresolved. UL President Ray Authement said the University found no evidence to support Jordan’s major allegations, and that he has urged Matheson to complete his inquiries as soon as possible.

6New Orleans Bowl moved to Lafayette’s Cajun Field due to storm

Katrina’s visit to New Orleans put the Sun Belt’s guaranteed postseason football berth in jeopardy, but New Orleans Bowl officials acted quickly and in early October announced that the opener of the nation’s bowl season would be played at Lafayette’s Cajun Field.

With the Superdome not available, the Dec. 20 game was shifted two hours west to give Lafayette its first-ever Division I postseason game. With it came all of the surrounding activities and ESPN’s national television exposure, which spotlighted both the sights and sounds of Acadiana and reminded viewers of the devastation in the Crescent City.

Southern Mississippi took a 31-19 victory over Sun Belt representative Arkansas State, and 18,338 turned out on a cold night – well below the crowds for previous New Orleans Bowls, but about what game organizers expected.

Cajun Field also was a temporary home for Tulane and McNeese State, each of whom played games there after storm damage to their home stadiums.

7Tony Robichaux brings Cajun baseball team back to NCAA Regional

The Cajun baseball squad made a return to NCAA Tournament play for the first time since 2002 and their 10th such trip since 1988, but a regional that included College World Series bound Tulane and a solid Alabama team proved too much to overcome.

UL finished at 48-19, its best record since the 2000 College World Series team, and a short-handed pitching staff allowed only 24 hits and eight earned runs in three NCAA games. But a UL offense that hit .330 during the regular season and .342 in Sun Belt play was slowed in the tournament and Alabama took a pair of 5-4 and 4-3 wins to oust the Cajuns from the double-elimination meet.

Senior Austin Faught was named the Sun Belt’s Pitcher of the Year and earned second-team All-America honors. He was one of 14 seniors on UL’s 25-man postseason roster, with that experience helping UL to a No. 13 national ranking in the final regular-season NCBWA poll.

8Softball team rolls to title in Sun Belt, back in NCAA Regionals

Excellence is a way of life for Ragin’ Cajun softball, the five-time defending champion of the Sun Belt Conference and a four-time participant in the Women’s College World Series.

The 2005 Cajuns upheld a tradition of excellence with a 51-10 season during which they slugged 81 home runs and scored 342 runs en route to another NCAA Tournament invitation. On the way, UL claimed its fifth straight Sun Belt title.

Once in the NCAA, UL hit four home runs in a 7-5 defeat of Oregon before losing 6-3 to regional host Oklahoma and 3-1 to Oregon.

The season marked the final campaign for record-setting All-American pitcher Brooke Mitchell, who was 28-7 with a 0.92 ERA and 342 strikeouts in 213 innings pitched.

Mitchell left as the school career leader in games pitched, games started, victories, shutouts, innings pitched, strikeouts and strikeouts per innings pitched. She also posted 10 no-hitters.

9Winningest football coach Russ Faulkinberry dies after being honored

Russ Faulkinberry was the one who came up with the term "Ragin’ Cajuns" to describe his undersized but feisty football teams at USL in the 1960’s. He was also at the helm for 66 victories from 1961-73, still more than any other football coaching in UL history.

His former players held a special gathering for Faulkinberry on Aug. 13 on campus. Shortly thereafter, Faulkinberry’s health began to fail and he died on Nov. 16 at age 77.

He built championship teams at UL, relying mainly on area talent, and stressed classwork as much as he did dedication on the field.

Faulkinberry was dismissed with one game remaining in a winless 1973 campaign, then remained in Lafayette, chiefly managing drug treatment programs.

An enthusiastic gourmet cook, Faulkinberry also helped former Cajun Jake Delhomme develop into an NFL quarterback who led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl after the 2003 season.

10Tennis success ends in controversy in NCAA regional play

UL’s 42nd-ranked men’s tennis team made its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000, but that appearance was wrought with controversy and disappointment.

The Cajuns were assessed two oddly-timed code violations by unnamed chair umpires in two tight third sets, momentum changes that turned a 2-2 match with Tulane into a 4-2 loss in the opening round of the NCAA event in Baton Rouge.

"They took it out of the kids’ hands," said a bitterly disappointed UL coach Justin McGrath, whose 12-8 team took three wins over NCAA automatic teams during the year and eliminated six-time Sun Belt champion South Alabama in the league tournament semifinals. UL finished second in the Sun Belt meet, falling to Middle Tennessee 4-3 in the finals.

Originally published December 30, 2005