Jim Gazzolo column: Learning to keep them home

Published 4:54 pm Thursday, April 18, 2024

It wasn’t that long ago when athletes seemed to be fleeing Lake Charles rather than racing toward it after their high school days were up.

With the city and McNeese State’s infrastructure in shambles due to storms, potential college talent wasn’t buying what McNeese was selling.

Who could blame them?

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Convincing area talent to stay close to home was a tough enough sales job for McNeese coaches and officials. Getting one to come into the area was an even harder job.

It’s an awful lot to ask kids to spend four prime years of their lives in a town that is basically a construction zone. Those with no history in the area seemed unwilling to help in any rebuilding.

As for the ones from the area, they had damage fatigue and were more than willing to try a new place where blue tarps didn’t cover most homes and restaurants weren’t closing early.

And let’s not forget, there weren’t a lot of places still standing to provide quality housing and those that were available were quite costly.

Athletes who had options were more than willing to sign elsewhere. McNeese and Lake Charles were one hard sell.

Sure, there was talk of better days to come, and promises of better things ahead, but seeing is believing and some of it was just too hard to believe.

Those facts have changed at a rapid pace.

During the recent recruiting seasons, McNeese has found out that there are more than a few now willing to join the Cowboy family.

Just in the last week, the football team received a big commitment from a highly touted quarterback to add to what the teams says has already been a very successful recruiting year.

For the first time in his three seasons as head coach, Gary Goff had a full roster for spring workouts.

“It was nice to have the ability to go through actually full practices,” he said.

Two years ago McNeese didn’t have enough players for practice, so often they would stop to let guys rest. Now they can rotate folks in and keep going.

Also, within the last week, Lynn Kennedy signed four players from Louisiana as he again rebuilds his women’s basketball team roster. Two are from the direct area with Paris Guillory being the biggest name.

The former St. Louis Catholic star is returning to town after spending her first year in college at Louisiana Tech. Calling it his “biggest signing” since taking over the program in 2021, Kennedy seems to be able to give fans what they have wanted,

During his first three seasons as the Cowgirls head coach, Kennedy has had trouble getting area players to consider his program. Instead, the staff he brought with him from Portland State filled the roster with players from the Pacific Northwest, Europe and even Australia.

Storms were just part of the issue, but with Guillory on board and bringing friends with her, there does seem to be an opening for change.

Both coaches agreed that a major part of the change is how they have gone about recruiting, but also the interest they are getting. It should not go unnoticed that both teams have hired new staff members to lead recruiting — Aaron Ingram in football and Mike Pittman in women’s basketball.

The moves have already made an impact.

But there is also more to sell. Exposure from a 30-win season highlighted a trip to the NCAA Tournament by the men’s basketball team, has McNeese on the radar of more athletes.

Add the improving conditions in both the area and campus and one can see why more kids are willing to play here.

“We now have something to show them when they come on campus,” Goff said. “We no longer are just talking about it, they can see what is going on.”

It has been a few tough years for some of the McNeese teams, but as the facilities continue to get upgraded, there is a change in how athletes are looking at the athletic department.

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