McNeese arena opens for first time since hurricane — and with new name

Published 4:22 am Saturday, January 15, 2022

Standing in ankle-deep water Heath Schroyer could see the morning sun blazing through the holes in the ceiling as he stood speechless at center court.

His crown jewel of a new arena, the focal point of his rebuilding and the future of McNeese State’s campus, was battered and bruised.

All around him he saw damage, water, debris.

It was the morning of Aug. 27, 2020 and Schroyer, then the Cowboy head basketball coach, was like the rest of Lake Charles, numb. Hurricane Laura had brought the entire region to its knees, McNeese’s new arena was no different.

“It was a low point for me,” Schroyer said. “Standing there in the water, seeing the sky above and all the damage, it was a dark moment for me, the darkest moment. I was very emotional as I toured the building.”

The $45 million, 145,000 square-foot facility, which opened in 2018, houses the basketball teams, the women’s volleyball team, a training center, classrooms and faculty offices.

In its two seasons, the arena known as the Heath and Human Performance Complex, had seen a couple sellouts and brought a new excitement to basketball in the region.

McNeese went from the bottom of the Southland Conference in basketball attendance to second behind power Stephen F. Austin. The Cowboys used that energy to help win seven straight games at one point.

“This arena is a difference maker,” said Nicholls State head coach Austin Claunch after his team lost an overtime thriller to the Cowboys before a sellout crowd in 2020.

But on that day as Schroyer stood in the water, he wondered when and even if the arena would reopen.

“I know we wanted to get back in here as soon as we could, but you never know with all the damage, I could not even start to guess when that would be,” Schroyer said.

That day is today.

For the first time since Feb. 26, 2020, some 689 days, a McNeese basketball team will take to the arena floor.

A lot has changed since then. Both the men’s and women’s teams at McNeese have new head coaches, Schroyer is now the athletic director and all but three players on both rosters have never been at a game in the arena.

Even the name will be officially changed by game time. The arena will officially be renamed the Legacy Center at noon today.

“It is a very emotional time for all of us, especially the people who have been here,” said McNeese men’s head coach John Aiken. “I know I’ll be emotional for sure.”

Aiken was an assistant coach under Schroyer at the time of Hurricane Laura.

“This arena was really a big part of what we had going on at the time,” Aiken said. “Crowds were coming, the fans were getting excited to watch us and the players really took to the place.

“Then that all stopped. Now it’s like we are starting over. I hope people see this as a sign things will get better.”

There is, of course, more help, too.

David and Kimberly Griffin gifted $2.5 million over 10 years to McNeese for the naming rights. It is the largest gift for naming rights of a McNeese athletic facility in the 82-year history of the university.

“This is a premiere facility in the state, especially in the five-parish area,” said David Griffin. “It’s one of the most beautiful facilities and truly one that McNeese should be proud of. We want to be part of it and McNeese and help the community rebuild.”

The name change will come during a ribbon cutting ceremony at noon in front of the arena.

“This is really exciting for me and for our team,” said women’s head coach Lynn Kennedy. “I have heard a lot of great things about the atmosphere in the building and what was taking place. We can’t wait to experience that.”

The McNeese women will tip off at 1 p.m. with the men’s game to follow as both McNeese teams open Southland play against Houston Baptist.

The games will end a long odyssey that saw the school’s teams play and practice all over the place.

The Cowboys and Cowgirls practiced in 10 different locations from Baton Rouge to Houston. Home games were back at Burton Coliseum. And both have suffered through COVID shutdowns the past two years.

“It has been challenging,” Aiken said. “You have different gyms, different rims. We didn’t always know where we were staying. Now we get into a rhythm.

“We are now back in our home. It’s a comfort. It’s like being back in our house and you can go in and put your feet up and sit on the couch.”

Players from both teams are just happy to have a gym to call their own.

“Sometimes we didn’t even know the day before where we were going to practice,” said guard Kellon Taylor. “Now we are excited to see what it’s going to be like when fans are in here.”

The journey back has been long, but Taylor spoke for players from both teams when he said: “It’s just good to be home.”

This homecoming is one McNeese to enjoy.