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Athletics – ‘I’™ll always remember:’ When Hurricane Laura devastated McNeese, rival UL was there

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Dec. 19, 2020

Shortly before catastrophic Hurricane Laura moved across the Gulf of Mexico, made landfall Aug. 27 in Cameron and unleashed her wrath westward on Lake Charles, McNeese State University basketball coach and athletic director Heath Schroyer evacuated to New Orleans.

The first place he went after returning to Calcasieu Parish wasn’t his own house. It was the Southland Conference school’s new basketball arena.

“I walked in, and there was 6 inches of water,” he said. “There was water up to my ankles, and I could look up at the ceiling and see the sky.”

It was not meant to be an outdoor court, but Mother Nature has a funny way of getting what she wants. 

A month or so later, with nowhere suitable for his players to live in a community whose plight has been forgotten by many amidst the nation’s COVID crisis, Schroyer’s team temporarily relocated.

For six weeks, they lived about 75 miles east across Interstate 10 on the campus of University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Click here for the photo gallery of some of the damage in the Lake Charles  area done by Hurricane Laura on Aug. 27, 2020. Photo by Scott Clause, USA Today Network.

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“UL really just opened their arms to us,” Matthew Bonnette, an assistant athletic director for the Cowboys, said after stepping outside of his house recently to talk.  Workers inside the home still are piecing it together almost four months after Laura hit. “It was really a fortunate thing for us to be able to go over there.”

The home of thine enemy was, at least for a while, McNeese’s own.

Now, the Cowboys are back in town to play the Ragin’ Cajuns on Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN?) at the Cajundome in a game that came about only because of another nightmare – COVID-19.

“It’s made our university, our community, closer and tighter,” Schroyer said of all McNeese, Sun Belt-member UL’s rival from days gone by when both belonged to the same conference, has endured the last few months.

“It’s made us tougher as a university, tougher as an athletic department. But it sure has been a lot.”

Damage estimates could hit $100 million

The football field of McNeese’s Cowboy Stadium looked a lake after Laura, the worst of multiple hurricanes to lash Louisiana’s Gulf Coast in 2020, blew through town.

Its baseball and softball diamonds were a mess.

And its still shiny, 2-year-old, $41 million H&HP Complex – which houses a 4,242-seat basketball arena and the university’s Department of Health and Human Performance – sustained so much damage the cost to fix it could be half of its original price tag.

The hardwood basketball floor at McNeese's H&HP Center in Lake Charles had to be removed due to damage from Hurricane Laura.

The basketball court at the McNeese H & HP center in Lake Charles had to be removed due to the damages of Hurricane Laura. Photo by Matthew Bonnete, McNeese Athletics.

Adding insult to injury, six weeks later Hurricane Delta tore a temporary roof off the facility and caused added water damage.

There’s really no way to know for sure what the cost to repair everything will be in the end.  Schroyer isn’t sure, but suspects the bill for a return to normalcy on the sports front alone could soar upward of $100 million. 

“There’s wasn’t an athletic facility on our campus that wasn’t (taken) off to its knees,” he said. “It is a true rebuild, and it’s going to be a really hard 18 months.”

The Cowboys evacuated before Laura.

They returned to a ravished city, the apartment complex where basketball players used to stay was uninhabitable.

“We had to find storage units for all their stuff,” Schroyer said, “(and) we moved to Lafayette.”

With campus closed, they also had to secure new living arrangements.

The case was the same for many McNeese students, many of whom found safe harbor for the entire semester at UL, the largest school in the UL system of colleges and universities, which includes, among others, Louisiana Tech and UL Monroe.

“(Schroyer) went to these apartment complexes a day or two after the hurricane,” Bonnette said, “and most of them were just torn up.

“The one our guys lived in was just destroyed.”

Schroyer eventually found new apartments for his players, but they wouldn’t be ready to live in until a month-and-a-half later.

There was a waiting list.

“It’s been a lot,” Schroyer said.

“You know, people have no idea what our team and what our department has (gone) through just to even be able to play a basketball game. It’s been a lot. It really has. There’s no book to tell you how to do this, There’s no blueprint.”

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The coach laughs, perhaps because his only other option is to cry.

“I tell our team all the time, ‘There’s no team in the country that is dealing with not only COVID but also being displaced and not only having a home,’ ” Schroyer said. “I mean, (Thursday) we practiced in a church gym on basically a middle school court.”

The team’s floor at Burton Coliseum, its old home – a sturdy multi-use, off-campus facility used for everything from rodeos to Mardi Gras balls in most years and to host electric company employees deployed to restore power in Lake Charles – was being used that day for graduation.

The H&HP court, meanwhile, still is unusable.

“It might be another year before we get in there,” said Bonnette, the school’s sports information director.

“It’s been really one thing after another,” Schroyer added, “but our kids come every day with a good attitude, and we’re very fortunate … just to be able to play basketball.”

His players seem to go with the flow, though deep down it may tough to truly tell.

“I think it’s hard for everyone right now – especially student-athletes,” said third-season Cowboys coach Schroyer, who also has been a head coach at Portland State, Wyoming and Tennessee-Martin.

“You go to a lot of places, and there’s very limited fans, if any. You have to live in a bubble, which is so unlike college. At this time of your life, the socialization is a big part of college. It’s a big part of everyone’s life, and not being able to do it … it’s really hard.

“Our guys are doing as well as good of a job as they possibly can, but it’s been a lot. When you sit down and think about all the things we’ve been through and these kids have been through, I’m really proud of them, because they’ve shown a resilience and a grit and a determination most people don’t have.”

Cajuns guard Mylik Wilson knows a few of the Cowboys who spent time at UL – and understands why they were anxious to return home.

“They really liked our facilities,” Wilson said. “But they really just wanted to get back to playing in their arena.”

Displaced McNeese players arrived in Lafayette in early October, shortly before the start of preseason camp, and stayed through Nov. 15 – 10 days before opening the season with a 102-55 loss at Nebraska.

While taking their own university’s online classes virtually, they stayed in a UL dorm and ate in a campus cafeteria. They used the student center. They lifted in the Cajuns’ weight room, and worked in the morning on their practice court before yielding way to Coach Bob Marlin’s team.

“We basically were guests of UL,” Schroyer said, “and I can’t thank Coach Marlin and the athletic administration (enough) for all the help they provided.

“They were absolutely phenomenal. … It helped us a lot. … And it was something I’ll always remember.”

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‘Living in a camper in his driveway’

On the last day before the Cowboys returned home, Cajuns coach Marlin went to lunch with McNeese’s staff members.

But besides that, Marlin said, “We did not interact at all.”

And it wasn’t just because they haven’t always agreed on scheduling matters. Rather, it was COVID-related reasons.

“We were doing what our university and the medical teams had told us,” Marlin said.

“They practiced in the morning and we practiced in the afternoon. The gym was cleaned in between every day.”

While some of his assistants stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn across from Cajun Field, Schroyer and associate head coach John Aiken commuted between Lafayette and Lake Charles the whole time.

“I had to get back and do a lot of athletic director duties,” said Schroyer, who both coaches and wears an administrative cap, “and both of us had houses that were damaged.

“Coach Aiken’s house was really bad. So in between practice and doing all that, we were trying to meet with insurance adjusters and contractors and trying to get a roof.”

Much work remains, but Schroyer’s home is at least livable now. Aiken – and so many others in Lake Charles – isn’t so lucky.

“(He’s) living in a camper in his driveway,” Schroyer said.

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‘We’re gonna be better off for it’ 

Some in Lafayette weren’t happy when McNeese, for strategic scheduling reasons, stopped playing the Cajuns.

“It’s one of our oldest rivals,” Marlin said.

The two teams have met 95 times in a series dating to 1951. Yet for the longest time, it looked like they wouldn’t get together this season.

A series of COVID-related cancellations changed all that.

“Once the schedule starting fall apart … we asked them if they wanted to play,” Marlin said.

By the time the Cowboys responded, according to Marlin, UL already had added two other games.

“When we wanted to play they didn’t want to play,” Marlin said, “and then we closed our schedule.

“Then they’re calling us, and it was too late. We gave an opportunity, and the timing wasn’t right – on either end.”

UL – coming off a 73-63 win over New Orleans last Tuesday in which Cedric Russell had 20 points, Wilson 15 and Theo Akwuba an 11-point, 14-rebound double-double – was supposed to close non-conference play Friday night at Virginia Commonwealth.

Then, with the pandemic still raging, VCU canceled that game – adding to a long list of ones lost to COVID, including trips to Texas and Southern Miss. The Cajuns suddenly had an opening. McNeese, which lost at least nine games with NCAA Division I programs because of COVID, was free.

“Now we do get to play … and it hopefully will be a great game,” Marlin said. “They’ve got a nice team.”

McNeese (4-2) has won three straight, all over smaller programs, all at Burton Coliseum. UL has won five in a row, all since a season-opening loss to preseason No. 1 Baylor.

Saturday, though, won’t be about records, scheduling matters or even necessarily about who’s better on the floor. Instead it’s about two programs that, despite past differences and crazy games from days gone by, remembered where the other could turn in a time of need.

“It was really hard, and we have a long way to go,” Schroyer said of the weeks since Laura changed so many lives in Lake Charles and South Louisiana.

“But I also believe and know that down the road – a year or two; three; four, five years from now – we’re gonna be better off for it, because of all the things we’ve had to go through and endure.”