Jim Gazzolo column: Cowgirls weather early storm

Published 11:40 am Thursday, May 18, 2023

James Landreneau said he never needed validation, but he got it anyway.

After having his program and personal character come under attack earlier in the season, the McNeese State softball coach stayed the course through stormy waters.

Even when some wondered if the 48-year-old coach wasn’t too “old school” for the modern times, Landreneau stayed quiet and kept moving forward.

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Last weekend he was proven right when his Cowgirls broke the program’s single-season record for victories at 44 while winning a third consecutive Southland Conference Tournament.

They are back in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in his seven seasons as the skipper of McNeese’s best program. When you exclude the COVID year of 2020, when the season was cut short and there was no national tournament, Landreneau has missed the big tourney once, and even then his team got a postseason invite in 2019.

But it was far from smooth sailing this spring.

“We were tested to the core,” Landreneau said. “Personal shots were taken at our program and myself. Our culture and our character were under attack.”

Worse yet, the attacks came from one of their own.

After a dispute with Landreneau, former player Jil Poullard left the team for Oklahoma State. She did not go quietly, slinging some deep arrows into her former coach and program, taking to social media with her issues.

“It was the toughest time of my coaching career,” Landreneau said. “It really hurt. I didn’t feel that bad for me. I can take it. I felt bad for the players, they didn’t deserve any of it.”

While players have never talked publicly about the incident, many said all that they went through during the season made them a closer group.

“We went through a lot of things but it all made us come together,” said Reese Reyna, who was named the SLC Tournament MVP. “We have become a really close group.”

In the end it was addition by subtraction for a team that was held together maybe for the first time for their head coach rather than by him.

“The girls really helped me get through it,” Landreneau said. “They had my back and I had to stay loyal to the players who wanted to be in our locker room.”

After getting their sea legs back, the Cowgirls took off. McNeese went 36-11 after the drama, moving up to 36th in the nation in ratings percentage index.

As they head to the Seattle Regional to open tourney play Friday against Minnesota of the Big Ten, Washington, the No. 7 national seed from the Pac-12, is waiting in the wings. It is an ironic reminder to all Cowgirls what they have gone through.

It was a Feb. 20 3-2 victory over Washington in Lake Charles that seemed be at the epicenter of the issues that followed. It also is a reminder of what they have overcome.

“For us to not get caught up in everything and others’ opinions, and stay the course, we know we did the right thing for the program and players,” Landreneau said. “I don’t know if I call all this validation, I’m just proud of the players for what they overcame and how they handled it.”

In the end, Landreneau got his team back to where it planned to be all along.

That may not be validation to Landreneau but it sure seems like he got it right when it all could have gone so wrong.

Jim Gazzolo is a freelance writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. Email him at