Even after the program became a varsity sport, the playing field remained an issue. “They (the players) borrowed my dad’s truck and stole sand from somewhere,” remembered Yvette Girouard.
They didn’t have scholarships at the start. Blaise Talbot came out of New Iberia Senior High as a catcher and was the first USL softball player to receive athletic financial aid ... even though she probably would have played without it. “I knew I wanted to be a Lady Cajun, Girouard said she wanted me to be a Lady Cajun, and that was it,” she remembered.
Comparatively, they didn’t have much. But there were things they did have.
The early Lady Cajuns had opportunity, a cherished commodity in the days where government was still figuring out the scope of Title IX and what it meant to universities and athletic programs. They had a coach that cared, one who was reluctant at first to sign on, and one whose mom pushed her to pursue something that mostly existed in dreams. That hasn’t changed, with the belief that coaches Girouard, Stefni and Michael Lotief have in their program, their university and their community still serving as the foundation of a storied program.
But the most important thing those early pillars of the Cajun softball program had was family ... and they had that in bucket-loads.
“You can’t describe it,” said Talbot, who joined the team for the second season and was behind the plate for four years. “The bond that we formed that quick, it was unexplainable. But you immediately knew there was a family bond, and you knew at some point that it would be special.”
Try 23 NCAA Tournament appearances in 24 years and five trips to the Women’s College World Series, more than 1,400 wins and 40 All-Americans, and countless tournament wins and all-conference and all-region selections, not to mention a wall dotted of Academic All-American plaques.
That success is being celebrated this weekend when the program holds its first true full-scale reunion, with players, staff and followers from the first 33 years taking part in three days of activities. Activities began Thursday at the UL-Troy football game, but the highlight comes at 3 p.m. today at Lamson Park with an “Old-Timers” game, the younger alumni squaring off against the current Cajun squad, and many other activities that celebrate the unbridled success of the program since that 1981 inaugural season.
Several members of the 16-woman original team are back this weekend, many of them for the first time. “We had a reunion in the 20th year,” Girouard said, “but some of the original players I haven’t seen in 30 years. It’s really, really special.”
That team, composed of walk-ons and tryout survivors, won their first-ever varsity doubleheader at UNO. The final record that year was 7-15, mostly against established programs. The next year that mark improved to 15-13. Two years later they won the Southland Conference title, and even greater success lay in the not-too-distant future.
“I was concerned with the wins and losses,” Girouard said, “but in the big picture it was all about the experiences. This weekend, they can’t remember the scores to any games, but they sure can remember the stories ... and they’re all begging for more time to tell them and hear them.”
Pourciau does remember winning those first games, remembers the first pitch to catcher Stacey Blue (”I think it was a strike,” she said), and the honor of throwing USL’s inaugural pitch still resonates. But that honor pales compared to the memories.
“It was the true concept of team,” said Pourciau, who carried the pitching load in those first two years. “It developed character. I loved being part of the builder. You look back at it and it’s a humbling experience. We were so happy to have the opportunity. It’s still a privilege to be a part of this program.”
Cathy Sconzo found that out early, despite breaking her nose on the very first day of practice in her freshman year (”I walked into the athletic complex, and Brian Mitchell gave me the shirt off his back to stop the bleeding,” she said). She was part of a big class of freshmen in 1989 and a key part of the team that first cracked the national polls (seventh at the end of the 1990 regular season) and claimed a first-ever berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“It was obvious my freshman year that the pieces were there,” she said, “and we were on the verge of becoming something big. It was a great feeling to be part of that. When South Carolina came to our park to play that year (1990), that was sort of the break-through moment.”
Sconzo came from Oklahoma City, site of the Women’s College World Series, but the 1992 All-American infielder hasn’t been back to campus for a softball event in decades. She did return to Lafayette for the funeral of Girouard’s mother Rosemary several years ago.
“Yvette’s parents took us under their wing and made us feel at home when we were a long way from home,” she said. “You remember the great plays and the awards some, but it’s the intangibles like that that stay with you, the working for it, all the hard work. The first players here all talk about family, and the players that are here right now still talk about that. The family aspect never went away.”
Neither did the hard work, and that goes all the way back to the club team that was the impetus for what has become the university’s most successful program on the national level.
Pourciau, who played high school softball at P.G.T. Beauregard in St. Bernard Parish, helped organize that club team and also approached USL athletic administrator Sherry LeBas about starting a true varsity team.
“She wasn’t sure there was enough interest,” Pourciau said, “but we had maybe 100 people show up when we announced tryouts. But if you have a team, you need a coach.”
Pourciau and fellow inaugural-team member Donna Clark approached Girouard, who had taught and coached in Lafayette Parish but had left to take a full-time role in the family business at the landmark Ton’s Drive-In in Broussard.
“I told them I’d do it for a year,” Girouard said. “We had no salary, no real budget. But my mom finally told me that I was going to do this ... that I was born to do this and not serve the public hamburgers.
“We didn’t have scholarships, but we had kids that loved playing softball. They would have done anything to go to the games. A sandwich and a Coke was fine. It wasn’t about what they were given, they just wanted to represent the university and play softball.
“It was the climb, it was the struggle. It was fun ... we didn’t know any better. It was just a simple, beautiful time.”
“It built a little every year,” Talbot said. “When (pitcher) Kim Eisnaugle came in, I remember how my hand hurt when I caught her. My senior year, when Sharen (Wynn) and Ursula (Quoyeser) and all of them were playing, we were pretty good. We started getting respected, and that helped the next few teams make it to a higher level.”
“The former players were always really supportive of the program,” Sconzo said. “Girouard was wonderful about telling the stories and never letting the foundation of the program die. We heard the stories about painting the fences and laying the sod. They weren’t regional teams, but they set the stage.”
The numbers speak for themselves. That success has continued ... but so has the overwhelming feelings of unity and camaraderie. More than 200 have been a part of the special sorority that celebrates its very being this weekend.
“Alisa Smith (1985-88) said it best last night,” Girouard said Friday as she sat at modern and state-of-the-art Lamson Park, one not far in distance but light-years advanced from that original field. “She’d played volleyball and came over to softball, and she said this is such a family compared to anything else she’d ever been associated with. That’s still the atmosphere today. That’s was made this special and keeps it special today ... it’s one big family.”“A fellow teacher heard me talking about the impact that the USL program and Girouard had on our lives, how immeasurable it has been,” Talbot said. “She said I was lucky to have played for her and for USL, and she’s right.”
Today’s Reunion Schedule
3 p.m. – Old Timers softball game and Home Run Derby at Lamson Park; 4 p.m. – Alumni meet & greet with fans; 5 p.m. – Alumni team vs. 2014 UL softball team, Lamson Park.
Athletic Network Footnote:
Click here for the Photo Gallery of the 1980 Club Sport team and the letter written by Donna Clark.