SPOTLIGHT: High school baseball fields continue to undergo dramatic changes

 FLYER SHOWPLACE:  Cicero Field is home to Loyola College Prep baseball and is light years better than the Flyers’ one-time home at Betty Virginia Park, and other venues.

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

If you wanted to know what is the biggest change in high school baseball in the last two generations, it’s not hard to find.

No, it’s not constant checking of the wristbands for the signals, or the parents shooting phone video footage through the net every time their son comes to the plate, or the seven sets of uniforms each team seems to have. (Those would all be good guesses, by the way).

Pitchers still throw in the 80s, no ground ball is routine and half the season is played in bitter cold and then the weather gets bad.

Those things may not have changed, but the fields they are played on sure have.

Dramatically.

Almost every local high school baseball program has upgraded its facilities to almost unrecognizable levels in the course of the last dozen years or so. How much depends on which schools you are talking about but consider this – most Shreveport schools didn’t even play on a field with an outfield fence a couple of decades ago.

There are many examples of how far things have come, but let’s start with these:

  • Byrd and Loyola (Jesuit at the time) used to share the same field at Betty Virginia Park, a city-owned facility. They got around to cutting the grass every once in a while. A shot to deep center might interrupt a picnic. If a ball down the left field line went into the concrete ditch, it was a ground rule double. From there, Byrd went on to play at games at Broadmoor Middle School, where a ball could easily get lost in the clover. Loyola played its home games at SPAR Stadium, Little League and Centenary. Now, both have facilities that rival any others.
  • If you go by Captain Shreve’s baseball field, you will see a backstop off to the left of the entrance. Hard to believe when you see what the Gators have now, but that is where home plate once was. Just a backstop. No fence. With the prevailing wind, outfielders had to play so deep that a routine single often would turn into a double. Shreve still uses that old field for infield practice, but there might be merit to getting an historic marker put up there.

“And don’t forget that most of these places didn’t have lights, so you had to play games at 3 o’clock,” says Airline coach Toby Todd. “I started at Woodlawn in 1988 and we would have to go play Byrd wherever they could play. We played them at Cargill with an all-dirt infield.”

Here’s one that will stun you if you just woke up from a 30-year nap: Airline has done a number of improvements over the years, but recently did an upgrade to the entrance way, restrooms, concessions, press box and premium seating that cost almost a million dollars. You read that correctly.

Yes, part of the improvement can be filed under “keeping up with the Joneses,” but Todd has a theory on how and why this has taken place. “When Skip Bertman came to LSU, he made baseball relevant in this state,” says Todd, who has won more than 400 games in his coaching career. “It was no longer the assistant football coach who lost the flip. At Airline, coach (Clay) Bohanan was the first true baseball man and he made Airline baseball relevant.”

Years ago, Haughton had a cesspool in deep center field, which didn’t remind anybody of Monument Park at Yankee Stadium.

“Before we built the new outfield wall, there used to be a tree out in left field,” says Haughton’s Glenn Maynor, who has been the coach for the Bucs since 1995. “Then we cut it down but there was still a stump. We used to have to go over it in the ground rules (before the game). And that wasn’t unusual. You had stuff like that at all kinds of fields.”

“When I first got here, we put up a half-cinder block backstop and poles and a net instead of a chain-link fence,” Shreve’s Todd Sharp says. “Now everybody has that. And I’ve replaced the net three times since then. But there’s always improvements being made. We used to mow the field with a John Deere tractor. Now we use a reel mower and can stripe the field.”

Part of the progress has taken away a little of the quirkiness that some fields had. Both Parkway and Benton have built new schools and have new baseball fields to go with them. They each moved away from an old facility that was both cramped – and different – from everyone else’s. Parkway had a gigantic left field fence that was 250 feet from home plate. A home run to right field at Benton didn’t have to travel much farther, but retrieve the round-trippers at your own risk — be careful of the horse dung beyond the fence.

Former coach Ronnie Coker began his career at Parkway (he went on to coach at Byrd and Shreve) and has seen the transformation first-hand. “More schools are making it a priority,” Coker says. “Which is fantastic for the kids because the kids win. If somebody else is doing something with their field, you want to do it too.”

It doesn’t happen overnight, but with the right amount of fundraising and volunteer sweat equity, things can happen. And there is ego involved as well.

“You don’t want to be the team,” Maynor says, “that has the worst field in the district.”




SPOTLIGHT:  Haughton’s Stovall has come a long way in a short time

IF AT FIRST: A former shortstop, Peyton Stovall has a new position and a new glove. ‘I didn’t have a first baseman’s mitt.’

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

It’s a long way from Haughton to Fayetteville, Ark. It’s a long way from District 1-5A to the top of Division I college baseball. And though it’s only about 120 feet from shortstop to first base, that may have been the toughest trip Peyton Stovall has made in the past year.

A year ago, he was perhaps the most feared hitter in Louisiana high school baseball. But instead of making the trip to the Major League Baseball draft – he was a certain early-round pick – he made the trip to college baseball.

That’s worked out quite well, by the way. The former Haughton star is a freshman starter on the No. 4 team in the country which, as you might imagine, can be pretty awesome stuff when you stand around and think about it.

Which he did, by the way.

“I did that my first couple of weeks,” he says. “But playing Mississippi State and LSU, you have to forget about looking out at the crowd. You have to stay between your own ears. Just play the game you’ve always played. Buy yeah, I remember looking around at the ballpark I’m playing in and thinking ‘This is insane’ with the number of people who show up. It’s a dream come true for sure.”

There have been lots of adjustments to make, but none bigger than moving from shortstop in high school to first base in college. “I didn’t have a first baseman’s mitt,” he says. “I’d never played it before.”

But the transition wasn’t as tough as he thought, even though he gained an appreciation for his new position.

“I know now that first base isn’t as easy as I thought it was,” he says. “But after playing there a couple of months in the fall and in the spring, it started becoming comfortable. After that, I feel like I’ve played it my whole life.”

As you might expect for a freshman playing at the highest level of college baseball, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster for Stovall.

He is batting .254 with three home runs and 14 RBI. He has started 31 of the games played by the 30-7 Razorbacks, who will take on Texas A&M this weekend in a three-game series in College Station.

At the beginning of March, he had an 11-game hitting streak in which he went 18-for-42 (.426). But he has hit only .172 in SEC play, though he has started all 15 games.

“At this level it’s tough,” Stovall says. “I started out slow and then for a while, I really had it going. It’s a challenge. It’s a grind. I was swinging it pretty well and then SEC play started. I just try to grind out each at bat. Getting better each game is a goal of mine and hopefully I can continue to do that.”

Stovall says he quickly realized the difference in pitching when SEC play rolled around.

“Definitely the depth of pitching and guys throwing harder,” he says. “They are able to locate better with all their pitches. Most pitchers can locate their fastball, but SEC guys can locate more than two pitches. If something isn’t working, they can throw something else. You have to let your hand-eye coordination and instincts take over. Just react. That’s something I’m still trying to get better at.”

Right now, Stovall says his focus is on the team and what the Razorbacks are trying to accomplish. When he arrived at Arkansas, his goal was simple and has remained the same.

“My number one goal is just to put the team in the best position to win, no matter what my role is,” he says. “I just want to give it my all, no matter how much I play. I knew if I did get my opportunity, to just give it 100 percent and don’t have any regrets. I can say I’ve done that so far. “

Photo courtesy Arkansas Razorbacks




Parting is such sweet, insincere sorrow

Among the many things I’m tired of reading and hearing about are these “goodbye” messages from college athletes when they are about to abandon leave one school and head for another.

First of all, it’s not like they are the ones carefully crafting every single word and then working on their Photoshop skills to put together this disingenuous heartfelt, BS-filled tear-jerking Instagram post to all of their fans. (There’s a cottage industry I should have gotten into – creating and designing transfer portal graphics. With the new freedom of movement, I’d never be out of work.)

Secondly, these posts are all basically the same. Here’s some news for you Mr. Wide Receiver who is leaving State U. – you’re not exactly breaking new ground here with your epistle. And no one is going to confuse you with Maya Angelou.

And most importantly, it’s not going to make any of the jilted fans feel any better. By the time they read what you didn’t write, they’ve already put you in their rearview mirror. See ya.

But let’s get out the ol’ Excrement Detector and translate what these players are really saying without actually saying it. What follows is a compilation of a few of these transfer messages that seem to hit the social media car wash with increasing regularity.

***

To the (school) family – [you can stop right there; they aren’t your “family” anymore. You are basically running away from home.]

I want to start off by saying that I really do appreciate the opportunity that I had to come develop myself academically and athletically. [Really? Doesn’t sound like it to us.] My time as a (school nickname) has come to an end [It’s come to an end because you’re quitting]. I would like to start a new chapter in my life and explore my options to continue my career as a student-athlete elsewhere. [How about exploring your options of sucking it up?]

I would like to thank God for giving me the opportunity to play the game I love. For the past two years, the (school nickname) family has been amazing. [Here we go with the “family” again.] Your love and support have earned a special place in my heart. [But not enough to get me to stay.]

To my teammates, you pushed me every day to be a better player and we became brothers throughout that journey. Going into battle with you weekly has given me memories I will always cherish. [Until I get to a new school and then I won’t remember any of your names.]

I want to thank Coach and the entire coaching staff. I am forever grateful for the opportunity and support to represent this university. [And then leave it because I think I’m better than I really am.]

(School nickname) Nation, thank you for allowing me to be a student-athlete at this prestigious institution. [Leaving out the part about how you don’t even know where the library is at the “prestigious institution.”]  Thank you to every teammate and coach these last three seasons. We won several games together and made memories that I will cherish forever. [If we had won more, I’d probably stay.] Special thanks to my family and friends for your support. [And those who never tell me no.] At this time, I would like to announce that I have decided to enter the transfer portal to continue my academic and athletic career. [So you’re transferring to search for a better biology department?]

Thank you again, (jilted school). I will miss you. [Until the U-Haul hits the interstate.] 




SPOTLIGHT: Former Captains lament FGF demise

FOREVER YOUNG IN FGF MEMORIES: Captains favorites (l-r) Brian Ohnoutka, Greg Litton and Romy Cucjen treasure their days at Fair Grounds Field, and in Shreveport.

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

In 2010, the Class 1A state baseball championships were hosted at Fair Grounds Field. St. Mary’s (Natchitoches) was playing, and as the Tigers pitcher was beginning to warm up in the bullpen behind the left field fence, the pitching coach was stunned at what he saw. And smelled.

“The stench was amazing,” the coach says. “It was like I was in a sewer while I was trying to get my pitcher ready to go. It was embarrassing.”

But what you need to know is that the St. Mary’s pitching coach had a different perspective than anybody else at Fair Grounds Field that day. You see, he was also the same person who was the starting pitcher in the second game ever played at Fair Grounds Field.

“It was so disappointing,” says Brian Ohnoutka today. “We all had so much pride in that stadium. All I could tell my pitchers was ‘One day, this stadium used to be great.’ That hit me hard.”

It’s been a long time since they were playing minor league baseball at Fair Grounds Field, but those who did still remember it well. Whether they went on to play in the major leagues or simply finished as a career minor leaguer, Shreveport and Fair Grounds Field had an impact on them.

And they had an impact on Shreveport as well. Perhaps there is no greater illustration of that impact than seeing the old pictures and hearing the old stories about how these players – mostly in their late 50s now – became “favorites” among local baseball fans.

Greg Litton was working in Pensacola when Shreveport’s independent league team was playing in town in the early 2000s. He was introduced to one of the players before the game. “Greg Litton!” the player said. “You were my favorite player when I was 10 years old!”

The impending destruction of Fair Grounds Field has brought about a sense of nostalgia from those fans, and the same feeling from those who played for the Class 2A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.

“Really? That’s so sad,” says former Captain Romy Cucjen upon getting the news. “I’m becoming emotional just thinking about it. It’s kind of overwhelming. It just shouldn’t be that way.”

“We were the first team through and we had the best stadium around and it was awesome,” Ohnoutka says. “The fans were great and we all had a great time. The beer garden was awesome. The pitchers would go down there and interact with the fans and they’d love it.”

“I had so much fun in Shreveport,” says Litton, an infielder who played for the Captains from 1986-88. “My memories of playing there are incredible. The people treated us so great, the fans were great … everywhere we went, people knew who we were. You almost felt like a big leaguer in the minor leagues.” 

Litton went on to have a six-year major league career. There is one part of playing at Fair Grounds Field that he doesn’t remember fondly.

“Honest to goodness, I played baseball in stadiums all over the country and without a doubt that was the hardest stadium to hit a baseball,” he says. “There’s not another that’s even close. I don’t what it was about that stadium. So when I heard (about the demolition), my first thought was ‘Thank God.’ I’m joking of course. Pitchers loved it, though.”

“I told this to people for years – I got to play in one of the best stadiums in the minor leagues,” Cucjen says. “It had to be in the top five. That place was awesome and it was something we were all proud of.”

Ohnoutka never made it to the major leagues. He was a second-round pick (30th overall) in the 1985 draft out of TCU. The Houston native was 22 years old when he arrived in Shreveport and played for the Captains in 1986, 1987 and part of 1988 before being called up to Class AAA Phoenix. In 1990, he played for the Class AAA affiliates of San Diego and California before calling it a career.

“To tear it down is probably the right thing to do,” Ohnoutka says. “You can’t do anything with it now. My point is that they should have done something to revitalize it 10 of 15 years ago. It’s a lost cause now.”

He married a Shreveport native he had met while playing for the Captains and then settled in Natchitoches, where he has been a financial consultant for 25 years. His son is currently a pitcher for Northwestern State.

“We had something special,” Ohnoutka says. “That’s all you can say. It was awesome. The management did a great job promoting it the whole year.”

Litton agrees, especially in regard to management. “I played for teams all through the minors and majors and there’s only one owner I ever knew and that’s (team president) Taylor (Moore),” Litton says. “He was always around and any little thing you needed, you knew you could talk to him.”

Litton, 57, is a mortgage broker living in Pensacola. He is also a motivational speaker and has been involved in politics in the area.

“If I was going to have to be in Double-A for that long, there’s no place I’d rather done it,” he says of Shreveport and Fair Grounds Field. “I made friends there and it really couldn’t have been a better experience and a lot of that was because of the fans. Everything was incredible.”

Cucjen came to the Captains near the end of the 1986 season and played in Shreveport in ’87 and ’88. He finished his career in Class AAA in 1990 and came back to Shreveport.

“The things you always remember are the relationships,” Cucjen says. “I met a lot of people there and playing for the Captains is what brought me to Shreveport. We raised our family there. It changed the trajectory of my life for the next 20 years.”




Fair Grounds Field left us a long time ago

We would finish laying out the Shreveport Journal’s Saturday edition about 10 a.m. and instead of going home, I would go in a different direction. There was something I had to see.

This was 1985-86 and I had to get a look at what was being built on the east end of the Fairgounds. Almost every Saturday, I would just drive by and sit in my car and marvel at what was being built before my eyes. Just to see the weekly progress was enough to whet my appetite. I’d stay for maybe 10-15 minutes and then head home, knowing that it was one week closer to being a reality.

And now it is 2022 and what came to be known as Fair Grounds Field will become a destruction site instead of a construction site. I’d love to say that my emotions are at the same level about this as they were more than 35 years ago — just in a different direction — but they aren’t.

I said goodbye to Fair Grounds Field a long time ago.

There are a great number of things I have experienced that I count as blessings and many of them have come from life simply putting me in the right place at the right time. The mid-1980s intersection of SPAR Stadium, Fair Grounds Field, the Shreveport Captains and sports writing is certainly one of those.

Quite by accident, I became the PA announcer at SPAR Stadium in 1983 and continued in that role for the next two years. The pay wasn’t great ($14 per night!), but I loved baseball and covering the team, plus I got free hot dogs and ice cream sandwiches.

But thanks to a bond proposal (that barely passed, by the way), $3.5 million was allocated to build Fair Grounds Field. Though I loved SPAR Stadium – my third-grade birthday party was there … I got Joe DiMaggio’s autograph there … the first seed of being a sports writer was planted there (long story) – it was time to move on.

I was a little surprised to be asked back to be the PA announcer — $35 per game! — but honored nonetheless.

In anticipation of the opening of FGF, I was sent to Arizona to cover the Captains’ spring training. The team was shaping up to be almost completely made over from ’85, but the guys who were going to come back in ’86 were aware of how big of a change was in store.

They had no idea.

Shreveport had no idea.

I will never forget standing in front of the Captains’ dugout with a few of the players when the gates opened at 5 p.m. (an hour earlier than normal) and saw fans literally running in to get a general admission or beer garden seat. The place was full in 30 minutes.

I have always said the biggest accomplishment in Shreveport baseball history wasn’t that 7,213 people showed up on April 14, 1986 for the first game at Fair Grounds. It’s that 1,527 people showed up on April 15. (The year before, the second-night crowd was 330.) That’s when I knew this was going to be the real deal.

For the next five years, I continued as the PA guy (“the shortstop, number 1, Tony Per-ez-CHI-CA!”) and had a blast.

But I came to realize that it wasn’t the stadium that made a difference. It was the people and the relationships that Fair Grounds Field brought about: Getting to know the players … sitting in the manager’s office discussing strategy … looking down into the crowd and watching the fans enjoy the night, even if they didn’t know their hats from second base.

My son got to be one of the Little Chickens as part of one of the San Diego Chicken’s routines. After games, I’d walk out of the player’s entrance and watch as little boys asked for autographs. I saw the look on faces of players leaving the manager’s office after they had just found out that their dream had come true – they were going to the big leagues.

Life took me in a different direction in the 1990s and later in the decade, it took Fair Grounds Field in one as well. In 2002, I attended a game at the now-renovated stadium after the ownership change had turned the Shreveport Captains to the Shreveport Swamp Dragons.

That wasn’t the only noticeable change. There were fans in attendance that night (sadly, the team averaged 431 fans per game that year), but the greater sense of emptiness throughout the stadium was obvious. The marriage between Shreveport and minor league baseball was over.

I should have felt nostalgic.

I should have felt sad.

I should have taken a moment to take one last look when I turned out of the parking lot that night.

Instead, I turned right.

Untended Fair Grounds Field set for demolition

 




SPOTLIGHT:  Pilots overpowering opponents in near-perfect season

PILOT MAKES A POINT: Brad Neffendorf has had more struggles with the umpires than with opponents this season as his LSUS baseball team has been dominant. 

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

The scariest part of the 35-3 record for the LSUS baseball team is that it could … actually … possibly … be better?

The first loss came in a game in which the Pilots led 6-4 going into the final inning. The second loss was in a game LSUS led 3-2 entering the bottom of the seventh. The latest loss was a one-run defeat in which the Pilots “didn’t execute in areas that we feel like we are normally pretty efficient in,” according to head coach Brad Neffendorf. (Translation: mental mistakes.)

But before you let 38-0 enter your mind, Neffendorf is quick to add, “but it could be the other way too. We had some close games that we pulled out.”

Really?

Read More




Masters magic? None for me in ‘93

Sports writers look back on their careers and like to brag that they were “there at Game 7” or covered “one of the great championships of all time.”

No one says much about the clunkers. The duds. The I-would-have-been-better-off-staying-home events.

Welcome to my Masters experience.

I share a theoretical office space at the Shreveport-Bossier Journal with my boys Roy Lang III and Teddy Allen, who have been to the Masters so many times that they have voting privileges in Augusta. They could go on the banquet circuit and regale everyone with their memories of great Masters moments they have seen.

Meanwhile, I’m stuck with the memory of covering the worst Masters ever.

Fred Couples having a ball miraculously not roll back into Rae’s Creek on No. 12? I was one year late. Ben Crenshaw’s emotional second green jacket or Greg Norman’s choke job on the back nine? Just missed them, too.

The signature moment from the Masters I covered? Chip Beck laying up on the 15th hole because he wanted to make sure he came in second. Don’t you remember that riveting walk up the 18th fairway by eventual winner Bernhard Langer? I don’t, and I was there.

At least I think I was. I might have been asleep by then.

About a month earlier, Kent Heitholt, the late sports editor of the Shreveport Times, asked me which event I’d like to cover – the Final Four in New Orleans or the Masters. It wasn’t a hard choice for me since I had already covered two Final Fours. Kent loved going to Augusta, so for him to throw me that bone was pretty awesome.

So Kent went to the Final Four and was courtside when Michigan’s Chris Webber famously called a time out the Wolverines didn’t have. It’s certainly one of the Top 10 moments in Final Four history.

A week later, I’m writing about how some Australian named Brett Ogle couldn’t find a bathroom on the entire course and so he had to relieve himself behind the bushes on the 13th tee. But I did follow that up with a Pulitzer-worthy story about how Jay Don Blake — you remember him, right? — had a Playboy sponsorship on his bag.

Langer went on to win the 1993 Masters by four strokes, meaning that I got to see the most one-sided win in 10 years. Beck held on for second, which apparently is all he wanted to do anyway.

By the way, I was also there one of the years that the azaleas didn’t bloom. The one time in my life I cared about flora and I got a no-show.

But I don’t want to leave the impression that it was a miserable experience. Far from it. I remember eating Easter lunch on the second story balcony of the clubhouse. Not a lot of people can check that box.

They used to have elevated towers as a vantage point for the press, so I walked down to the one by the 11th green and 12th hole and just posted up in that perch for hours and took it all in.

I came up with a great story idea and failed to act upon it. Gene Sarazen, who was 91 years old at the time, was one of the honorary starters on Thursday morning that year, but all he did was hit a tee shot, take a right turn and head for the locker room. So why did he have a caddy? I wanted to interview that guy under the category of World’s Easiest Job.

As it turned out, within the next month that caddy had one more job than I did. The newspaper and I had a bit of a disagreement and guess who won? They were Bernhard Langer.

And I was Chip Beck.




SPOTLIGHT: A jewel who looks for diamonds in the rough

THE REV. SCOUT: Dave McQueen has a keen eye for baseball talent, and a big love for sharing his faith and motivating young people.

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

Go to a high school baseball game and there’s a good chance you will see Dave McQueen. He’s not hard to spot; he will be the guy with the Panama Jack hat, a Colorado Rockies shirt and a notepad.

And if you can’t find him, just wait. He will probably find you.

For a guy who is not a player and not a coach, Dave McQueen is perhaps the biggest institution in local high school baseball in the last 20-plus years.

He’s also the biggest cheerleader.

Technically, he is a scout for the Rockies, but if you think that’s all he does, you’d better get comfortable.

He is also a minister and a motivational speaker and he found that baseball, quite by accident, is the best way to put all of those passions together.

“My message is a message of hope,” McQueen says. “These kids need to understand that dreams do come true. We talk about being a good teammate and play with enthusiasm and having a good attitude. Just the things that it takes to go along with being a player who has the skills.”

Between games of a Saturday doubleheader? There’s McQueen speaking in the dugout to a team that’s not even from North Louisiana.

It’s what he does.

It’s who he is.

“It’s motivation,” McQueen says. “I’ve spoken to sales groups as a motivational speaker. I can get them fired up, but I can’t play for them. You just have to get them to understand what recruiters and scouts are looking for and to love the game.”

The 77-year-old McQueen is a Bossier High graduate, Class of 1963. “I wanted to be a preacher, but it just didn’t work out,” he says. “I didn’t have the grades and we really didn’t have the money for me to go to school.”

The road started as a PA announcer at Airline High baseball games and he began doing PA at other venues as well. In 1994, he was doing a tournament at Fair Grounds Field when a Florida Marlins scout put him to work as an associate scout, commonly known as a “bird dog” in the baseball business. “Since you are going to all these games anyway, let me know if you see anybody we should look at,” the scout told McQueen.

But an ownership change with the Marlins put McQueen out of work a few years later, until the Rockies came calling. “Whoever came through first (with an offer) is who I was going to sign with,” he says. “Colorado came first.”

He is now in his 20th year – this will be his last – with the Rockies and he has also rekindled his passion for the ministry. McQueen has more than 2,000 followers on social media and his story has been published in the book titled “SAY THE PRAYER, WAIT FOR THE PLAN: A Tribute to the Life and Ministry of Dave McQueen, Professional Baseball Scout” by Tammy Jones.

“I love the game; I love life,” McQueen says. “I just enjoy being out here with the kids and the fans and spreading the Lord’s word. I want these young men to know I support them and I will help them in any way that I can.”

If there’s a game to be played, McQueen will pack up his notebook and radar gun and be ready for the first pitch because it’s baseball and you never know what (or who) you might see.

“I look for a guy who loves the game,” he says. “Everybody will tell you that they do, but you can stand here and just tell when they take the field how much they love the game. The guy who is first on the field and first off and you look at him a little longer than the others. Then you look to see if he’s got the tools. When you see a guy like that, you follow him and see if he can develop.”

Watching and following is McQueen’s calling card. A few years ago, he went to watch a pitcher named Jim Miller, a junior college transfer to Louisiana-Monroe. Miller was very good in the first inning but couldn’t get out of the second. Instead of scratching Miller from his list, McQueen thought the right-hander might make a good closer.

He didn’t see ULM the rest of the year, but did go to the conference tournament where the Warhawks were playing in the loser’s bracket. McQueen stayed to watch, just to see if Miller might come in and pitch again. Sure enough, he came into a game and dominated as a closer.

The Rockies drafted Miller in the ninth round of the 2004 draft. (He made it to the major leagues in 2008 and had a five-year career.)

In the winter meetings after the 2004 draft, the general manager of the Rockies had McQueen stand up before the assembled group and spoke of how McQueen had doggedly stayed after a potential prospect.

He gets a little choked up telling the story.

“That,” McQueen says, “was my proudest moment.”

Photo by JOHN JAMES MARSHALL




The night the nation met MJ at the Final Four

Less than a year out of college, I should have been barely qualified to cover the women’s bowling league, but here I was at the 1982 Final Four in New Orleans.

Such was life at the now defunct Shreveport Journal (a distant cousin to today’s Shreveport-Bossier Journal). We were a small-sized newspaper but damned sure we didn’t act like it. (Another Journal writer was in Virginia covering Louisiana Tech in the Women’s Final Four.)

In fact, the Final Four wasn’t even my first big assignment; I had already covered Dallas Cowboys training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

I was last in seniority and have no idea how I got the Final Four assignment, but it probably had something to do with the fact that I had a cousin in New Orleans who I could stay with for free. (NOBODY could squeeze financial blood out of a turnip like the dearly-departed Shreveport Journal.)

Forty years later, the ’82 Final Four may well be the event I covered and still remember the most.

Let’s start with the end and we will circle back. If you want to know where I was when North Carolina freshman Michael Jordan hit the famous shot with 16 seconds left, picture this – he basically shot it in a direct line at me. I was on baseline (front row) to the right as you looked at the TV screen. I knew it was in from the instant it left his hand.

It was a great angle to witness a part of history, but here’s what’s not so great about it – when Georgetown’s Fred Brown threw an errant pass to Carolina’s James Worthy that cost the Hoyas a chance to win the game, I had no idea what had happened. To me, it looked like Worthy made a nice play on the ball; in reality, Brown wanted the ball out of his hands and mistakenly threw it to the first person he saw which was Worthy, who was badly out of position.

One of the biggest gaffes in the history in sports and I had no idea what had happened, because of the same seat location that was ideal to track MJ’s memorable jumpshot.

For years, I have tried to find myself in every video or picture from that game and have never been able to do it. You rarely see a shot from behind Jordan, so I’ll just have to settle for being one of those blurry heads in the bottom right of the picture.

I had been to a basketball game at the Superdome before, and I knew its awkward configuration, but I remember walking out for the Friday practice session and being amazed at how many people were there. It’s kind of like the practice rounds at The Masters in terms of being something you should see.

The main storyline for the ’82 Final Four was whether UNC coach Dean Smith could finally win a championship, but a second one developed quickly. This was the start of what became “Hoya Paranoia” as Georgetown coach John Thompson began his adversarial relationship with the media. I remember Thompson, who kept his team in Biloxi during the Final Four, bringing freshman Patrick Ewing to the interview room but wouldn’t allow anyone to ask questions of him.

In the championship game, Ewing was whistled for four goaltending calls – giving Carolina their first eight points of the game – to send a message to the Tar Heels. Georgetown lost by one; would you like any of those messages back?

The other two teams at the Final Four were Louisville and Houston, who had another young player with “Akeem” written on the back of his jersey. Think about that – freshmen Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon were at the same Final Four.

When it was over, I remember being in the North Carolina locker room – another thing that’s not done anymore – and there were a bunch of reporters around Jordan. Off to the side was his warmup top. I could easily grab it, tuck it away and who would ever know? After all, they didn’t have any more games to play.

Pretty sure I would be out of jail by now had I been caught, so there’s that. Then again, I would have missed covering the next women’s bowling league play date.

 




Shreveport’s Cicero helping steer Final Four festivities

DIRECTING THE MADNESS: Shreveport native Jay Cicero (speaking) is a key figure in staging Final Four week in New Orleans.

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

Just in case you thought the Final Four is nothing more than three college basketball games, Jay Cicero would like to have a word with you.

The native Shreveporter is the CEO of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, the organization that is charged with the day-to-day staffing of the committee that runs the Final Four to be played this weekend at Caesar’s Superdome.

“It’s everything BUT three basketball games for us,” Cicero said. “The games are actually a time for us to relax and enjoy the event. The rest of the time is putting out fires and dealing with the issues that come up.”

During an interview, Cicero got a text from the New Orleans police chief. “See?” he laughed. “I’m sure he’s not asking for tickets.”

If the chief wants tickets to the March Madness Music Festival – or any of the multitude of Final Four-related events – Cicero might be able to help. The NCAA is in charge of the actual games (two Saturday and one Monday) but Cicero and the organizing committee (also made up of Tulane and the University of New Orleans) have everything else.

And when you say “everything else,” that’s a lot more literal than you think.

The March Madness Music Festival will be held April 1-3 at Woldenberg Park, which is 16 acres of greenspace located on the riverfront just north of the Aquarium of the Americas.

There’s also one less tree at Woldenberg Park than there used to be. For now.

“A tree had to be removed because the stage is so large and it would have blocked the stage,” Cicero said.

He worked with the park managers to find a solution. Yes, it was removed; no, Cicero does not own a chainsaw. (Actually, the tree has been “temporarily removed.”)

“Stuff comes up that you wouldn’t believe,” Cicero said. “Check back at the end of the week and I’m sure there will be plenty more.”

Actually, it’s been a wild few months in preparation for the Final Four. “It’s been crazy,” Cicero said. “Dealing with the COVID restrictions that were in place that have now been lifted has been tough. It’s been up and down. Now that they have been lifted, it allows a lot more people to attend the special events.”

Finding and recruiting 3,000 volunteers has been a big part of the challenge.

“There’s a shortage of personnel for almost every facility in town,” Cicero said. “We’ve been able to arrange – and pay for – the expense of bringing in security personnel from all over the country. These facilities have to be staffed to host these everts properly. That has been one of the challenges. And the cost of getting those people is dramatically higher for transportation and housing.”

There have been community youth programs, an initiative called “Read to the Final Four,” a legacy project to renovate an historic gymnasium in Algiers, and numerous fan events to coordinate.

“Just trying to get as many locals involved as we possibly can and get them to attend these events outside of the games,” said Cicero, who will receive the Dave Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership Award and be inducted June 25 into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

This isn’t Cicero’s first Final Four rodeo. Since moving to New Orleans after being the Shreveport Captains assistant general manager, this will be the fourth time he has been involved with the Sports Foundation. In 1993, his organization handled all the volunteers; in 2003, it managed everything (similar to this year), and in 2012, the organization was involved, but not to this degree.

“The event has grown in 10 years and it’s more difficult (to manage) and more cumbersome,” Cicero said. “The amount of media attending has grown (about 2,000) and the NCAA has a lot more sponsors than in the past. The activations and the hospitality needs have grown significantly. That’s put an extra level of detail on the event.”

Including “temporary” tree removal.




Can you break a non-record? History vs. Hysteria

Not long ago, DeMar DeRozan of the Chicago Bulls had what was termed as a “record-breaking” performance in a game against Sacramento.

Now I wouldn’t know DeRozan if he walked in the door – I thought he still played for Toronto; turns out that was two teams ago – but I was intrigued because the headlines alerted me to the fact that he’d broken the record of Wilt Chamberlain.

Of course we all know of Wilt’s prolific ability to score – and he was also a pretty good basketball player (rim shot!) – so I figured this must be something pretty big. I realized it wasn’t Hank-Aaron-breaking-Babe-Ruth’s-record big, but I was prepared to be impressed by Mr. DeRozan’s accomplishment.

Turns out, he is the first player in NBA history to score 35 or more points and shoot 50 percent or better in seven consecutive games; Wilt did it in only six straight.

Wow.

As you can imagine, after picking myself up off the floor, I took a moment to let it all sink in. And what sank in was that I realized that another entry was about to be added to the file of Stuff They Tell Us Is Important That Really Isn’t.

It’s everywhere these days, mainly because everyone is trying to make everything significant when it simply is not.

Anytime you see “history was made” or “historic” or “record-breaking” you should be prepared to be (1) unimpressed and/or (2) disappointed.

A high school football team wins eight straight games for the third straight year? Historic!

A basketball player becomes the 17th player in school history to score his 1,000th career point? History-making!

We can’t just say something is “good” anymore because it has to be “GREAT!” We zipped right by the definition of “accomplishment,” because that’s what these really are.

Neil Armstrong walking on the moon was historic. Joe DiMaggio hitting in 56 straight games was record-breaking. But when you have to manufacture some confluence of criteria in order to qualify something as a record, it really isn’t.

It’s not record-breaking when we didn’t even know the record existed in the first place.

Historic is defined as “famous or important in history, or potentially so,” which probably doesn’t apply to the high school running back who scored five touchdowns.

Your team is not “making history” because it’s won six straight Homecoming games. Congrats on that, but we are going to save the historical part for something with a little more relevance.

Just remember this – Christopher Columbus got a lot of pub for what he did in 1492. I’m sure the hometown Genoa Gazette was quick to praise his “history-making performance” for allegedly discovering America. But since millions of people were already living on the business side of the Atlantic Ocean, there was actually nothing historic about it.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously defined pornography as “I know it when I see it” as the threshold test, but I’m guessing that Justice Stewart might have an even harder time sifting through what’s being thrown at us when it comes to what’s being labeled as “historic events,” especially in athletics. When it comes to these types of accomplishments, you’ll know it when you see it.

(As a quick aside, Stewart was replaced on the Supreme Court in 1981 by the first female justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. Now THAT’s historic.)




600 (and counting!) for Haughton’s Maynor

HAUGHTON HEROES: Bucs baseball coach Glenn Maynor picked up career win 600 Friday. Quite a few involved Peyton Stovall, now a starter at Arkansas.

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

There have been some legendary high school baseball coaches in Caddo-Bossier history throughout the years.

For example, Dr. James C. Farrar coached at Fair Park, Northwood and Southfield and was three-time state Coach of the Year before becoming a college coach and then a major league scout.

Tommy Henry won a state-record 66 straight regular season games at Bossier on the way to appearances in the state finals in back-to-back seasons. He won 74 straight district games and five straight district titles.

Jim Wells took Loyola to two appearances in the state finals during the early 1980s before becoming the winningest coach ever at both Northwestern State and the University of Alabama.

Considering that there are six state finals appearances among them, whatever kind of “best ever” list you might draw up for local high school coaches, these three would be on it.

Haughton’s Glenn Maynor has won more games than Farrar, Henry and Wells.

Combined.

Maynor has been the winningest coach in Caddo-Bossier history for a few years now, but he got the landmark No. 600 win Friday as part of a three-game sweep over Evangel.

At age 50, Maynor plans to keep going for a while. “You can never really get to a place where you think you’ve got it all figured out,” he says. “I think I’m a better coach than I was two years ago. I may not have the energy I once did because I’m older. But when you get a big win and you are jumping up and down when it’s over, I tell people all the time that you can’t get that kind of feeling selling insurance.”

It’s a long way from Year 1 to Year 28 and Maynor is quite aware that it took a special set of circumstances for him to get started as Haughton’s head coach.

After an outstanding career at Airline in the late 1980s, Maynor went to Northwestern State. He was a left-handed pitcher for the Demons and played for Wells. After graduating, he did his student teaching at Haughton in 1994. He was hired for the next school year as an assistant for three sports, including baseball, but through a series of promotions in the Bossier Parish School System, Bucs baseball coach Gene Couvillion became an assistant principal in December.

“I was pretty much the only baseball guy at the school,” Maynor said. “Luckily I had been here the year before as a student teacher so all the kids were familiar with me.”

Even luckier was that he inherited a stacked team that won 27 straight games and finished with a 30-3 record.

“I felt like I knew the game,” Maynor says. “I played for Coach Wells at Northwestern and he was a great baseball guy. It wasn’t like I was going into it blind. From the beginning, the coaching was the least thing I was worried about; it was the managing and administrative part of it.”

Win No. 1 came on Feb. 21, 1995, on the road 8-1 against Benton. In 28 years, Maynor has had only one losing season.

“The only way you can keep doing this as long as I have and maintain a level of success is to keep growing,” he says. “You can’t ever be satisfied, because things change. When I first started, we’d run five-hour practices. First of all, couldn’t do that with today’s kids anyway and the other thing is that I’m a lot more efficient in how I run a practice than I was before.”

With the 600th in his rearview mirror, Maynor will continue to try to get the ultimate milestone – a state championship. As a Class 4A school in 1998 and 2000, Haughton reached the state semifinals. In Class 5A, they have made it as far as the quarterfinals.

“We’ve had a lot of success in the playoffs,” he says. “We just haven’t won the big one yet.”

At 13-2 this season, Haughton would certainly be considered as the District 1-5A favorite. The Bucs will open district play Tuesday at Benton, meaning Maynor will be trying to get Win No. 602 at the same place he got Win No. 1 in 1995.

“In today’s times, you wouldn’t see a 23-year-old head coach,” he says. “I was lucky to be in the right spot at the right time.”




For better & worse, the new MLB rulebook

There are plenty of changes coming to major league baseball and there’s no shortage of stupid ones. (Bigger bases, really?)

But unless you are one of these staunch traditionalists who think the boys should be dressed in wool uniforms, you’ll need to start accepting some of the changes as they come. Some have merit and some are dispensed with almost as soon as they are invoked. (Copying the softball extra inning rule was an insult to everyone’s intelligence.)

Stay with me here – the pitch clock is a good thing. And they oughta put a pitch clock on the pitch clock to get it implemented as soon as possible.

It’s already being used at various levels of college and minor league baseball, so it’s not going to be a shock to the system of the next generation of major leaguers.

Look, there are a lot of rule changes that either affect the fabric of the game or come way too close. I hate the shift as much as anybody, but legislating against it seems to be an affront to Abner Doubleday or whoever it is they now think invented baseball. (As it turns out, it is now believed that the only thing Abner started was the Civil War.)

Trust me on this one – you will hardly even notice the difference in a game with the pitch clock. Except that you’ll be getting home a lot sooner.

I’ve seen some Double-A games with the pitch clock and here’s what I haven’t noticed – the clock. Usually it’s tucked away on the scoreboard, where you have to be looking for it to find it, and also located behind home plate, where only the defense can see it.

Here’s what you will notice – batters staying in the batter’s box between pitches. You mean you don’t have to adjust your batting gloves after every pitch? What a novel concept!

You will also notice that if there is a sign to be given, it isn’t relayed six times among managers, coaches, the bullpen catcher and the traveling secretary. The count is 3-0 … you could just yell out “TAKE!” and no one would even notice.

Pitchers don’t walk around the mound like caged animals or ponder the merits of the resin bag after every pitch. The catcher throws it back and they get ready for the next pitch. Simple as that.

The games I’ve seen have had limits of 15/20 (15-second limit with no one on base and 20 with runners.) There’s even been talk of a 13/18 clock. If the clock runs out, the umpire decides who is at fault. If it’s the pitcher, it’s an automatic ball. If it’s the batter, automatic strike. But you’ll go weeks and never see it called.

The adjustment is immediate for the pitchers and the batters and the game certainly has a better pace to it. Next time you watch a major league game on DVR and you have one of those 30-second advance buttons, use that and see how many times the next pitch still hasn’t been thrown. Now think about how much quicker the game would be if you cut that in half. In a game with 250-300 pitches, it adds up.

If MLB wanted to get really serious about it, it could eliminate the time between innings or pitching changes very easily. Right now, it varies between 2:05 and 2:55, but they could take one of those 30-second commercial spots and play it on a split screen after an out is made. (Golf and football both do this now.) You’d still have the $$$ from the ad but it would lessen the time between half-innings.

Run the numbers – there are at least 17 half-innings in a game, multiplied by 30 seconds each. Throw in a few pitching changes and that’s 10 minutes right there.

The average length of a baseball game hasn’t been under 3:00 in 10 years (it was 3:11 in 2021). Baseball can fix its other problems later; fix this one now.

Before time runs out.




When winning mattered most, Thibodeaux didn’t care who won

NO VOLUNTEER: Shreveporter Mike Thibodeaux (at left, in stripes) earned opportunities to officiate in the NCAA Tournament from 1991-2009.

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

The answer to the question that Mike Thibodeaux doesn’t know is “Arizona 93, St. Peter’s (Pa.) 80.”

The answer to the question Thibodeaux does know is “Salt Lake City, 1991.”SBJ spotlight

If you want to know where and when Thibodeaux refereed his first NCAA Tournament game, he will have no trouble remembering. If you want to know who won the game, you might be in for a little bit of wait. In fact, just remembering the teams who played in that game is a little dicey for him. “It might have been UCLA,” he says.

Which is exactly how it should be. Almost everybody at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City 31 years ago had at least a passing interest in the outcome of that opening round game. Except for Thibodeaux and the other two officials.

But that game was the start of an impressive run of NCAA appearances for Thibodeaux, who brought his striped shirt to every March Madness from 1991 to 2009. Not sure what this means, but for perspective’s sake, Roy Williams is the only coach to do that during the same span.

Thibodeaux had done some games in the National Invitation Tournament when he got the call to carry his whistle to Salt Lake City.

“There’s a lot of nervousness with it,” he says. “But it is exciting when you get that first call.”

Though he had already been a referee for five years, no amount of preparation could quite get Thibodeaux ready for the NCAA Tournament experience.

“You are wide-eyed and you get in there and see these other guys who have worked in the bigger leagues and you just want to take it all in,” Thibodeaux says. “But at the same time you want to hold your own so they know you did a great job.”

After calling the Arizona-St. Francis game (a 2 vs. 15 matchup), he didn’t exactly hurry home. “I stayed an extra day,” he says. “I wanted to watch some extra games to see how the other guys worked and get the full effect of the tournament.”

Thibodeaux started officiating college basketball in 1986 in the TransAmerica, Southland and Sun Belt Conferences. He later went on to call games in the SEC for 28 years, plus a few years in the ACC, Big 12 and Big 10.

But there is no easy road to get the call for NCAA Tournament games. “It’s like the teams … they don’t actually have the best 68 teams (in the tournament),” he says. “Same goes for the referees; they don’t really have the best 96 referees, but they do try to get guys from different leagues just like you have teams from different conferences.

“But it’s truly an honor for the 96 who get to go,” he adds. “The selection process now is probably a lot better than it was years ago. There are regional coordinators and a national director who determines whether they are tournament ready. When you get selected, it’s off your body of work from the entire season.”

At first, tournament referees are assigned one game in March Madness. Thibodeaux didn’t get a two-game schedule until the mid-1990s. He had a couple of Regional semifinal games, including one in 2000 when he called Purdue’s upset win over Gonzaga in Albuquerque.

“That was really an exciting atmosphere calling a game at The Pit,” he says. “What was exciting was to go to places you hadn’t been. Places like Sacramento, Ohio State, Buffalo, Greensboro, among others.”

Thibodeaux kept calling games until he had double hip replacement in 2009. “I had my run,” he says. “I went a good number of years.”

During that time, he worked the midnight shift at KCS Railroad. “Back then, when Delta flew big jets into Shreveport, I could arrange my schedule so I could do a game at Georgia, get to the airport at 11, gain an hour (in the time zone change), arrive back at 11:30 and be at work at the railroad on time,” he says.

Now retired, Thibodeaux still stays active as the assignment secretary for high school football and baseball for the Shreveport Association and for basketball in the Ruston Association.

He is also thankful that he is not remembered for all the wrong reasons as a NCAA Tournament official.

“There are some guys who are always remembered for the calls they made or didn’t make,” Thibodeaux says. “Or the ones where you had a confrontation with the coach. But I don’t think there was one call that sticks out. It was a lot of fun.”




When Wayne Smith and Tech danced the Tournament two-step

ON POINT: Shreveport’s Wayne Smith was the starting point guard for Louisiana Tech in a pair of NCAA Tournaments, including two 1985 wins in March Madness.

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

Two years earlier, he played in half-filled high school gyms against overmatched competition.

Now, Wayne Smith found himself on the floor of Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, about to play in the 1984 NCAA Tournament.

Days earlier, Louisiana Tech had shocked Lamar, which had an 80-game home winning streak, in the Southland Conference championship game to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs had been so focused on beating Lamar, who had topped Tech twice that year, that they almost didn’t immediately grasp the big prize for winning.

“We all just kind of realized, ‘Wow, we are in the (NCAA) Tournament,’ ” said Smith, then a 6-foot-4 sophomore point guard for the Bulldogs.

Smith, who played high school basketball locally at now-defunct Trinity Heights in the Louisiana Independent School Association (LISA), was part of the greatest period in Louisiana Tech men’s basketball history. He had two very different experiences on playing in the NCAA Tournament —

1984, when no one expected Tech to make the NCAA Tournament, and 1985, when Tech was not only expected to play, but to play well as a Top 10 team.

“Two totally different experiences,” Smith said. “But both were just surreal.”

Here’s how much things have changed: When the Bulldogs got home from Beaumont after beating Lamar, someone thought it might be a good idea for a get-together with the team and a few media members to watch the Tournament Selection Show in the basement of Hutcheson Dorm.

Tech drew the No. 10 seed and would take on Fresno State, the No. 7 seed. But when CBS’ Billy Packer began to tout a potential Fresno-Houston matchup in the second round — “that would be a very interesting game,” Packer said — the room came alive.

“We’ll show Billy Packer!” exclaimed star player Karl Malone.

And they did, winning 66-56.

After beating Fresno, Smith saw what reality looked like two days later for Tech’s next game.

“Walking down the tunnel to play us was Akeem Olajuwon,” Smith said. The No. 2-seeded Houston Cougars were so worried about Tech that they didn’t bother to fly in until the morning of the game.

“But we held our own against them,” Smith said of the eight-point loss. “We just kept playing. The one thing coach (Andy) Russo ingrained in us was just to keep playing every game like it’s your last game.”

The next year, Tech was 27-2 and ranked No. 8 in the nation when the tournament arrived.

“Coming off the Fresno game, I think we maybe didn’t quite realize how special of a team we had,” Smith says. “Fast forward a year later when we had that confidence. I don’t think we had it that first year when we were a little bit in awe that we were even there.”

The Bulldogs were rising stars in the 1984-85 season, winning the first 10 and then going 11-1 in the Southland Conference, but had to win an overtime game and a one-point game in the conference tournament just to guarantee a spot in the NCAAs.

“I felt like we belonged, but it’s so hard when you are fighting in conference and playing teams that know your tendencies and are familiar with you,” Smith said. “So when we went to play Pittsburgh (in the ’85 first round, a game Tech won easily, 78-54) it felt we had a new life. Then we beat Ohio State by 12 (79-67) and came within a bounce (against No. 1 seed Oklahoma, an 86-84 loss in OT) of going to the Elite Eight. I really feel like that team believed we were supposed to be there.”

These days, from his home in Shreveport, Smith watches college basketball play a style unlike what he experienced four decades ago.

“The game is so different now,” he said. “The shot clock has changed things and there was no 3-point line until my senior year. It was much more of a possession game when we played, which was in our favor. We played four-out and one-in and tried to pound the ball down low to Karl. We played to our strengths and were successful in doing that back then.”

Smith has grown to appreciate his appearances in the NCAA Tournament because “you realize how hard it is to get there,” he said. Since 1985, Tech has only been to the NCAAs three times – and not since 1991.

“When you look back, it was really special,” Smith said. “We had a bunch of homegrown, Louisiana kids – from Monroe, Shreveport, Summerfield, Minden, New Orleans. You look back and see who we had, plus the coaches like Russo and (Tommy Joe) Eagles and (Steve) Welch and (Dave) Simmons. Just so many good people and great memories.”




Dreams dashed: no do-over for prep athletes in the Class of 2020

It was this weekend two years ago when the virus hit the fan. And while everybody had their own interests and issues to deal with, it was just as tough of a time in the athletic world.

Yes, the professional and college levels felt the pain, but they found a way to recover. Pro games were suspended, but contingency (re: financial) plans had been in place. College seasons were lost and it certainly caused monetary issues for schools, but the players were able to get the missing 2020 year back in eligibility (if they chose to).

You know who really took the biggest hit? The high school athlete. The boy or girl in a spring sport who lost a chance to have the season they had always looked forward to. On the weekend of March 13-14, they got called off the field or court or course or track and never returned.

Looking back on it, there were a lot of “what were we thinking” modifications in sports made that seem so ridiculous today. (Closing tennis courts? Golf courses that didn’t allow touching of the flagstick?) So I’ll go ahead and say it: two years later, are we sure this was the right call?

Let’s try to not get too political about it, but have you looked at the recent charts about Covid-19? The drop in cases – or whatever measuring stick you’d like to use – has been precipitous, to say the least.

But if you compare that to what it was two years ago, it’s still greater (or about the same) as March, 2020, when we were calling off games and then canceling seasons.

Yes, I understand that we know a lot more now than we did 24 months ago, but I can’t help but think of the high school baseball player or golfer or track star who never got a chance to be a state champion. Or maybe even a chance to just start on the varsity.

This was their year. Then it wasn’t.

Two years ago on a Saturday morning, local high school baseball tournament officials were busily using a hand counter because only 250 people were allowed at the park (including players and coaches). That same day, teams were throwing together “Senior Day” recognitions before tournament games. One local school had a “Senior Day” at one field in the morning and another at another field in the afternoon.

Neither one of those was on its home field.

There was the thought that after two weeks or so, high school athletics would pick up where it left off. The LHSAA waited as long as possible to “officially” call off all the sports seasons, but it was inevitable.

Two years later, you can’t help but wonder if that was the right decision. Before you say it, I know all about the “one life saved” rejoinder, but that can always be taken to any extreme in any circumstance.

If you go strictly by the scientific data, games were being called off in 2020 under conditions that are less (or basically the same) than what we have today, when no one is thinking that a baseball bat needs to be wiped down after trip to the plate. Look at the chart — there was no significant, lasting rise in cases until well into the summer.

About the same time those state championship rings would have come in.




LSUS starts NAIA postseason led by Jelly Fam star

JELLY: LSUS guard Leondre Washington, who has found hoops subculture fame as a leader of Jelly Fam, leads the Pilots into NAIA postseason play Friday night.

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

LSUS guard Leondre Washington didn’t plan on being part of something big in the world of basketballSBJ spotlight videos. It just turned out that way.

It would be tempting to say that what Washington is involved in is a New York City thing, so you probably wouldn’t understand, but it is actually more of a social media thing.

It’s OK if you haven’t heard of Jelly Fam, a recent movement across the basketball world. But hundreds of thousands know all about it.

Washington is one of the co-founders of Jelly Fam and has about 75,000 followers on his social media account.

“He has kids requesting pictures with him almost everywhere we play,” says LSU coach Kyle Blankenship.

“Jelly” is in reference to putting your own certain style and creativity on finishing a layup. Kind of the dunk contest equivalent for short guys. The idea is that you approach the basket as if you were going to dunk but then transition into something else. You might switch hands or do a finger roll or spin it off the backboard … whatever you choose. “Just add your own flavor to it,” Washington says.

Washington, whose nickname is “Jelly” (big surprise), will take any kind of layup he can get as he and his Pilots teammates begin play in the opening round of the NAIA national tournament Friday in Alexandria. LSUS, the No. 2-seed in the Alexandria Regional, will take on Missouri Baptist at 7:30 p.m. at Rapides Parish Coliseum.

As the leading scorer for the Pilots at 16.6 points per game, Washington obviously knows more ways to score than just fancy layups. But it is a part of his basketball story.

He’s one of a group of New York-area players (Washington is from Englewood, N.J.) who developed Jelly Fam. Isaiah Washington, formerly of the University of Minnesota, and Ja’Quaye James are considered the founders, but they soon brought in other friends such as Washington.

“It’s basically a game with layups and putting your own style to it,” Washington says. “Rather than a dunk contest, it was something for younger kids to do. It just blew up from there.”

There were eight involved when Jelly Fam began to take off about five years ago. Though it may not be as popular as it once was – don’t look for a Jelly Fam contest during NBA All-Star weekend any time soon – the group of founders still have more than a million followers.

“Definitely never thought it would turn out like this,” Washington says. “It’s such a blessing because we didn’t go into it to get popular. It just happened. It was just a bunch of friends playing around.”

It’s been a long road for Washington to get to LSUS. He started his college career at Robert Morris in Pennsylvania, then transferred to McNeese State. When that didn’t work out, he was in search of a place to play. A former McNeese assistant knew Blankenship and put the two in touch with each other.

“I had never heard of LSUS,” Washington says.

But it didn’t take long for Washington to know that it was the right move to make.

“This is something I just wanted to be a part of,” he says. “When I spoke to Coach Blankenship, he made it feel like home. I just love it here. Anytime you can play basketball after high school, it’s a blessing. I just thank God for that. I feel like I’m here for a reason. I was destined to be here. I didn’t know that at first but it feels like it now.”

Washington was named first team All-Red River Athletic Conference and was a third team All-American last year.

After being knocked out in the opening game of the national tournament a year ago, Washington says the Pilots have learned from that experience as they prepare for a run at the title. LSUS, 23-7 overall, has won eight in a row and 15 of the last 16. Though the Pilots have only seven players, five of them average in double figures.

“We are ready,” Washington says. “Last year, I don’t think we knew what we were getting into and kind of got ambushed. Now we are experienced from that. It’s going to help us this year to not get too hyped for the game and start to press.”




Be nice, or be gone; not baseball in my book

One of the last bastions of insensitivity is apparently collapsing before our very eyes. And while I fully understand the world we live in, this makes me a little sad.

Conservatively, I’ve probably been involved in some capacity in at least a thousand high school baseball games. As this season began, I’ve come to find out the players are not allowed to say anything that even resembles derision of the opposition.

Basically, it’s “cheer for your own team but don’t say a word about anybody on the other team.” Until this season, when the opposing pitcher tried a lame pickoff move, you could count on hearing a sarcastic “he’s got a better one!”

You might hear it again, but not for long. That harmless remark will now bring out a warning from an umpire.

High school baseball coaches have received a directive that anything directed at another team will not be tolerated.

That’s too bad.

One of the things to love about the sport is all of the things that are best described as “that’s just a part of baseball.” Maybe not all of them are so great – i.e. throwing at a batter’s head – but catcalls from the dugout have been around since Babe Ruth was skinny.

I hesitate to call it “the art of bench jockeying” because it’s not really an art any more. These days, quite frankly, they’ve gotten a little lame.

But a creative bench jockey? That guy has almost disappeared. For years, even the opposing team would appreciate the creativity of a pointed barb.

Once again, I am fully aware of self-esteem concerns, but when you play baseball, you accept that (almost) all bets are off when it comes to sticking it to the other team. There is a line that shouldn’t be crossed, but now the high school rule book editors have even eliminated the line.

You sailed one off the first baseman’s head on a routine ground ball with runners on second and third with two outs to give up a one-run lead? (I did that!) You better believe you were going to hear about it. AND YOU SHOULD. Don’t like it? Make a better throw.

“Have a seat!” or “seeya!” on strike three? I promise they’ll get over it without counseling.

“I’ve seen better swings on a porch!” after a flailing hitter swings wildly on a curveball? Admire the creative genius.

“You eat with those hands?” after a dropped infield popup? Nobody is going to lose sleep over that.

Like most everything else, the things that pass for “bench jockeying” have recently been kindergarten stuff compared to what it once was. Try saying “he’s got a better one” more than a few years ago and you would have been laughed out of your OWN dugout.

A creative bench jockey can be as effective as a sign stealer – and both roles are filled from the dugout by those not playing. Which is the point. It’s a way to keep bench players involved and “in” the game instead of worrying if Mom will go get a blue Powerade from the concession stand and bring it to the dugout.

Look, I get it – no one wants snarky digs to get out of control and ignite trouble. Parents don’t want to hear someone “making fun” of their little Jimmy. But it has gotten so harmless these days anyway that there’s no reason to put the clamps down completely.

First of all, Little Jimmy will get over it. Secondly, he’s probably got a few stored up himself, just waiting for that perfect moment.

Too bad that moment has left us.




Tech baseball embracing the challenge of expectations

It’s a five-letter word that many college baseball coaches usually dare not say when talking about their team’s chances in a season. If you are wondering what that word is, here’s a hint — it begins with O and ends with MAHA.

To everyone who says that Louisiana Tech can’t possibly think in those terms, the Bulldogs might say this:

Kent State.

Stony Brook.

Coastal Carolina.

All three have been in the College World Series in Omaha in the past 10 years. None have ever been considered a traditional college baseball power. Yes, the CWS is dominated by schools that are at the top of the college food chain. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for others.

The 2022 season may have snuck up on you — it starts today — but it didn’t catch Tech fans by surprise. Season tickets for J.C. Love Field are sold out. There is a buzz about the Tech baseball program that has never been there before.

“It does have a different feel, but that’s why you build your program,” Bulldog coach Lane Burroughs said. “This is where you want to be. You want people to expect you to be there. You want there to be a buzz. This is what we envisioned when we took over. We’ve just got to go out and deliver on the field now.”

Make no mistake — the Bulldogs won’t be easing into the 2022 season. Tech will open with seven games at home against three teams that have a combined 27 appearances in the College World Series. All three have been there in the past 25 years. It starts with a weekend series against Wichita State, next Wednesday evening’s sold-out game against LSU and then a three-game series with Tulane.

You halfway wonder if the Atlanta Braves would have been on the schedule if it weren’t for that whole MLB lockout thing.

The Bulldogs might have been the best story in college baseball last year. Stranded without a home for two years after a tornado destroyed the baseball facility, the program was rebuilt in multiple ways. What resulted was a re-done J.C. Love Field that is still hard to believe exists at the corner of West Alabama and Tech Drive.

What is harder to believe is the run the Bulldogs made at that facility. Tech went from a program literally playing on a high school field in 2020 to one that had wins over No. 1 Arkansas and No. 4 Ole Miss – in the same week – and a 22-8 record in Conference USA.

Then came the words that many found difficult to put together in the same sentence and actually believe — “Ruston Regional.”

Burroughs is the first to admit that the stars aligned for Tech last year, but what he is facing this year is completely different.

“We’re in a position we’ve never been in as a program,” he said. “We are getting a lot of attention (Collegiate Baseball has Tech at No. 15 in the pre-season poll), but our guys just want to compete.”

A year ago, it was a different atmosphere. “We talked last year as a team about leaving a legacy, but there really wasn’t much pressure on them, not much expectation,” Burroughs said. “Let’s be honest, we didn’t have a home (field) for two years.”

In many ways, the legacy the 2021 team left might manifest itself in the 2022 team. Was that just a once-in-a-lifetime team or the start of a program with ideas of going places? Might it become one that can actually think in terms of playing in Nebraska in June?

“I hear it said that not only do we need you to host (another regional), but we need you in Omaha,” Burroughs said of the baseball buzz. “But that’s why we all do this.”




Revisiting Super Bowls, sites unseen

I may not know the score or even who won, but I’m a one-percenter on The List of People Who (Without Looking It Up) Can Tell You Every Super Bowl Site.

I have to know the teams involved — the Super Bowl number won’t help. It also helps A) to have them in order so I can go through my mind’s roadmap, and B) to have some obscure memory that fires off a synapse to help me remember (noted below in parenthesis).

And so … a total stream of consciousness look at Super Bowl Site History.

The first few Super Bowls are easy — Los Angeles Coliseum, Miami-Orange Bowl, Miami again, New Orleans (Tulane), Miami-Orange Bowl. Ten years after I’m dead, I’ll still know these.

All the ones involving the Terry Bradshaw-led Steelers — they beat the Cowboys in Miami both times, the Vikings at Tulane Stadium and the Rams at the Rose Bowl (NOT the Coliseum).

The Dolphins beat the Redskins (Garo Yepremian game) and the Vikings, both at the Coliseum (Willie Brown interception game).

The Cowboys beat the Dolphins at Tulane Stadium for their first Super Bowl win and the Broncos for their second — Superdome.

Speaking of the Cowboys, the ones in the 1990s were Rose Bowl vs. Buffalo (Leon Lett game), Tempe (vs. Pittsburgh) and Atlanta vs. Buffalo (Mark Washington game).

Buffalo also lost to Washington in Minneapolis (Art Monk back-of-the-end-zone game) and Washington beat the Broncos in San Diego (Doug Williams game).

A few 49ers while I’m thinking about it — Silverdome vs. Cincinnati (first SB in the North), Superdome vs. Broncos (I turned down an opportunity to cover that it), Miami vs. Cincinnati (John Candy game), Miami vs. San Diego (Steve Young demolition game), Superdome vs. Baltimore (lights out game).

The Giants beat the Broncos at the Rose Bowl (Phil Simms game), then beat the Broncos in Tampa (Whitney Houston game), also the site of the Redskins getting blown out by the Raiders (Marcus Allen game). The Raiders beat the Eagles at the Superdome (Kenny King game).

Baltimore beat Carolina in Houston (Jake Delhomme’s parents didn’t have far to travel); the New England comeback over the Falcons was also in Houston. The Dolphins beat the Vikings in Houston (Larry Csonka game) — but it was at Rice Stadium.

Tom Brady’s first Super Bowl was at the Superdome (vs. the Rams, I didn’t watch a play) and the Rams beat the Titans at the Georgia Dome (1-yard-to-go game).

The Saints beat the Colts in Miami (was supposed to be at the Superdome) and the Colts beat the Bears in Miami (rain game).

The two Eli Manning wins over the Patriots — one was in Glendale (David Tyree game) and the other (Mario Manningham game) … I think it was Indianapolis. (ED’S NOTE: Correct.)

The Packers won in the Superdome over the Patriots, as did the ’85 Bears over the Broncos. The Broncos beat the Packers in San Diego (John Elway helicopter game). The Packers beat Pittsburgh in JerryWorld (as they were adding seats 30 minutes before kickoff).

The Steelers beat the Seahawks in Ford Field-Detroit (bad refereeing game) and the Cardinals in Tampa (Santonio Holmes catch game).

The Falcons lost to Denver in Miami (Eugene Robinson got arrested/hooker game), and the Eagles lost to the Patriots in Jacksonville (Donovan McNabb vomit game).

This is where I get a little hazy. The Eagles beat the Patriots, probably in Minneapolis (the Philly Special game); I think the Patriots beat the Seahawks in Glendale (the Malcolm Butler game) and the Seahawks crushed the Broncos in East Rutherford (I-wish-it-had-snowed game). (ED’s NOTE: He’s right.)

I know the Broncos beat the Panthers in Santa Clara (50th anniversary game).

Two years ago, Kansas City beat San Francisco; I’m guessing it was in Tampa (I have minimal recollection). (ED’S NOTE: Oops. In Miami.) Pretty sure the Patriots beat the Rams in that awful 13-3 game in Atlanta (Mercedes Benz Stadium). Last year is easy: the Bucs won at home vs. Kansas City, but also lost to Oakland in San Diego (2003).

That’s not all of them, only all I could remember. After further review, I think I got all of them correct.

Sad, isn’t it? (ED’S NOTE: Very!)




Loyola advances to semifinals as Jarrett reaches milestone

Loyola’s Kennedy Jarrett scores her 100th goal in Loyola’s 5-0 win over Lusher Charter

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

Three years ago, the Loyola soccer program honored four-year star Carson Berry with a banner at the field after he scored his 100th career goal. Kennedy Jarrett took notice of the banner and thought that it might be a nice goal to set for herself.

Mission accomplished.

Jarrett led the way with three goals as the Flyers, after a bit of a slow start, saw the floodgates open in a quarterfinal match against Lusher Charter in a 5-0 win Wednesday at Messmer Stadium.

Jarrett had one goal in the first half and two more in the second to reach the magic mark.

“It was kind of a relief,” the senior said. “but we really need to stay focused on the games we have left.”

A header by Mary Helen Burford off a corner kick took the lid off for the Flyers and was quickly followed by goals from Madalyn VanDevender and Jarrett to give the Flyers a 3-0 lead midway through the first half.

“We were able to score a couple of goals which settled us down,” Loyola coach Mark Matlock said. “Overall, it was a strong performance from the front all the way back to the goalkeeper.”

About the only suspense left after that was whether Jarrett would be the fourth Flyer to score her 100th career goal.

The senior got #99 with 31 minutes remaining in the second half to make it 4-0 as the countdown continued.

Ten minutes later, Jarrett broke loose and knocked it into the left side of the net to add to the Loyola lead.

“It was really exciting,” Jarrett said of her 100th goal. “I’m glad it went in so I didn’t have to worry about it anymore.”

There wasn’t much suspense for the Flyer defense either as Loyola controlled almost all of the possessions on its end of the field.

“We’ve been pretty dominant the last couple of games,” Loyola coach Mark Matlock said. “This team is on a mission right now. The confidence level is really high but we are really relaxed which has helped us to play well.”

The Flyers advance to meet St. Michael’s (Baton Rouge) in the semifinals – the fourth straight year for Loyola to reach the Final Four. The two teams met in December and played to a 1-1 draw. The game, likely to be played Saturday, will be at Messmer Stadium.

“I’m really excited we made it back the semis,” VanDevender said. “Plus it’s a rematch against St. Michael’s, so it’s going to be big.”

“Technically, they (St. Michael’s) are pretty good,” Matlock said. “I think the battle for the midfielders is going to be big. It’s a matter of finishing chances. When you get this far in the playoffs, you tend to only get four or five chances to score and the team that puts those away is going to win.”

Loyola (13-5-4) has won 11 straight and has allowed only one goal in its last seven matches. The Flyers will be looking for a third straight appearance in the Division III finals.

Photo by GRAHAM TRAWICK




And the (bad) beat goes on …

Sports wagering has come to Louisiana and it will have almost zero effect on my life. For those who have been counting down the days, I’m happy for you.

Good luck, we’re all counting on you.

There are a lot of unknowns on the future of sports betting, but there is one certainty – if you bet long enough, there will be a game or an event in which you will never, ever forget. And I can promise you this: It won’t be because you won a game. You might remember a sweet out-of-nowhere victory for two weeks. A tough, gut-punching loss? That will stay with you forever.

Consider it a badge of honor. One day you’ll be with your friends and they’ll start taking about how they got hosed on 3-pointer by Sacramento at the buzzer to uncover. “Let me tell you what happened to me a few years ago,” will be your standard response.

Scott Van Pelt of ESPN has a SportsCenter segment called “Bad Beats” that is as watched as anything on the entire network. It’s based on scenarios in which a betting loss was snatched from the jaws of victory. The unluckier it is, the better the story.

Of course, I’ve got one of those. And it is at least more than 30 years old. (See how you don’t forget?)

First, a little perspective. For the better part of 20-25 years, my sports wagering has basically been confined to college bowl season ($10 per game) and the occasional March Madness pool. I just don’t have the interest because, to be honest, it’s a lot of work.

Back in the day, I could tell you which teams hit left-handers in their home park (Cleveland!) or why you should bet the over on NBA games played on a Friday night (because they played even less defense than normal with the weekend coming up.)

All of that left me many, many years ago … but this story didn’t.

I don’t know the year (but it had to be in the late ‘80s) and I have forgotten all but the necessary details. The New York Knicks were at home and were favored by 2.5 points. I had the Other Team.

The Other Team put up a great fight, but as the seconds were winding down, the Knicks made crucial baskets and key free throws to go up by one point. The Other Team was going to play for the last shot and either win it or lose it at the buzzer. 5 …4 …3 … 2 and then the shot went up. Missed it! The Knicks’ Mark Jackson got the rebound, buzzer sounded, ball game!

Knicks win, Other Team covers the +2.5, everybody’s happy!

Knicks’ coach Rick Pitino started to walk to the dressing room and was halfway down the tunnel at Madison Square Garden when he was stopped and told to come back. I can still see the look on his face which basically said “why?”

Now, this was back in the days when referees and the NBA weren’t worried about every tenth of a second. Especially in a game like this where there was NO WAY the Other Team could win.

But it was ruled that Jackson had been fouled on the rebound and – I’m not lying – they put 0.1 second on the clock.

The teams had to come back out and Jackson had to go to the free throw line. You probably don’t remember, but Jackson had this unusual free throw ritual in which he would point at the rim and then take about a week and a half to shoot. You’d think that he’d go out there and spare us the histrionics.

You’d think wrong.

But he still had to make BOTH for me to lose. First one? Good. Here we go with the ritual again … second one … good. Knicks win by three and cover.

Pitino never even returned to the bench; he just stood in the runway and watched.

If I ever meet Mark Jackson, I’m going to ask for my $27.50 back.




Bossier’s Marquis Harris is a very, very busy young man

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

At a recent Bossier High basketball game, principal David Thrash was watching from the stands with a former parish school administrator. The visitor noticed that the Bearkats’ starting center walked down to the end of the bench, took off his jersey and walked to the locker room.

“Did that kid just quit?” he asked Thrash.

“Nope,” he said. “Not only is he one of our best basketball players, he’s also one of our best soccer players. He’s got another game to go to.”

Welcome to the world of Marquis Harris.

Multi-sport stars are not unusual (though they are becoming less frequent) in high school sports, but what Harris is doing – especially during this time of year – isn’t typical.

The 6-foot-5, 210-pound senior is playing two team sports at the same time – and doing it at a high level. The Bearkat star is the center on the Bossier basketball team, which will again be a top seed in the Class 3A playoffs. He’s also a forward on the soccer team, which is seeded No. 4 in the Division III playoffs.

And by the way, this comes after an outstanding career on the football team as quarterback, running back, wide receiver and kicker. Once the spring arrived, he will also be in multiple events for the Bossier track team.

Is that all? “I never played baseball,” Harris said. “But I might have to try it.”

When he is faced with the situation of having two games on the same night, he has to make a choice. Usually, it’s fairly obvious, since the Bearkats have had great seasons in both basketball and soccer. “I usually just tell him to go on,” basketball coach Nick Bohanan said. “Heck, I try to get there after our game to watch him (play soccer) myself.”

One thing about Harris – he’s not hard to spot. Typically, he’s the tallest on the basketball court, but in soccer? Let’s just say that you can’t miss him. The opponents certainly take notice.

“They look at me and I hear them say, ‘Oh man, this guy is big,’” Harris said. “They want to know how tall I am and ask me ‘Why do you play soccer?’ I tell them it’s because I love the game.”

“I don’t know how he does it,” Bohanan said. “It’s not like he’s just on the team. He’s a big part of each team that he’s on. He’s a focal point for both.”

See, Harris didn’t just go out for soccer on a whim. He has been playing the sport since he was three years old and soon was part of the club soccer circuit.

Loyola coach Mark Matlock was one of Harris’ youth soccer coaches and has seen his development. “With his size, you don’t think of quickness, but he covers so much ground with his strides,” he said. “To be as big of a physical presence, he really has a soft touch. When he was younger, he was all about power and raw speed, but I think he has refined his technical ability.”

“He’s at my practice every day, works hard and then he leaves and goes to soccer practice and does the same thing,” Bohanan said.

On Dec. 14, Harris played for a half as the Bearkats took on Benton, one of the top soccer teams in Division II. Then he came inside to a basketball game against Captain Shreve, one of the top local Class 5A teams.

“You could tell that night he might not have had his legs,” Bohanan said. “He went to dunk one and he didn’t have his typical lift. But I think it’s very impressive that he’s able to do both simultaneously at a high level.”

“We do that on purpose to let the other team think he’s not playing,” soccer coach Orlando Medlin said. “When he comes in the game, it’s a distraction. He’s going to pull two or three defenders with him and that makes the field bigger for the wings. That’s his job.”

With a talent like Harris in demand for two sports, you’d think the coaches would have issues.

“We’ve worked together since Marquis got here,” Bohanan said. “We will talk and say ‘Do you need him tonight?’ or maybe we will decide to split time with him.”

“It might be better,” Medlin joked, “if we could just split him in half.”

When it comes to the playoffs, that shouldn’t be a problem since the soccer and basketball postseasons are staggered. The soccer Bearkats, seeded No. 4, had a bye in the opening round of the Division III playoffs and will play this weekend. The basketball playoffs for Bossier, currently No. 2 in the Class 3A power rankings, won’t begin for another two weeks.

“He’s only going to get better,” Bohanan said. “He’s going to get bigger and he has not reached his potential, no matter what sport. He’s polite, he’s a pleasure to work with and a joy to coach.”

“Marquis is like a son to me,” Thrash said. “He tells me all the time he loves me and I love him. His parents have done a great job. If there’s a family more supportive than his, I haven’t seen it.”

Where his athletic talent will take him from here still remains to be seen, no matter what the sport. “Somebody is going to figure it out,” Thrash said, “and everybody else is going to realize they made a mistake.”

But for now, Harris will continue to take it one sport at a time, no matter which one that is.

“I just play them,” he said, “and hope for the best in all of them.”

Photo by JOHN JAMES MARSHALL

Marquis Harris attacks for the Bossier soccer team in their 1-0 win over Loyola for the district title. Photo by CHRISTY ROEMER




Centenary gymnast Taylor Ann Wilson overcame detours on route to national championship

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

Taylor Ann Wilson had decided to call it a career. Though she had been hooked on gymnastics since she was three years old, a foot injury during her junior year of high school in Memphis signaled, at least to her, that it was over.

It was a fun ride, but it was now time to move on.

“It was devastating,” Wilson said. “Your junior year is the big year for recruiting. I had a really hard time coming back for that injury.”

No more sending out videos to colleges hoping to create more recruiting buzz. No more dreams of continuing on past what she had already done.

“I realized I wasn’t going to do college gymnastics,” she said. “I was just going to have fun in my senior year, so I basically stopped my recruiting process.”

When bad luck taps you on the shoulder, sometimes you just need to realize that it happens for a reason. Or maybe it’s just in disguise.

Just about the time she became content with her decision, she received an e-mail from a gymnastics coach at a small school in north Louisiana.

Three years later, Centenary’s Taylor Ann Wilson, who had once thought her career was over, became a national champion.

It might be easy to say it was a long road for Wilson to become a national champion, but in reality, there was no road. Barely even a dirt trail.

Having seen her name on a recruiting list, Centenary coach Jackie Fain contacted Wilson by e-mail to see if she might be still interested in pursuing a collegiate career.

But it has been a career that has seen its share of challenges. During her freshman year, Wilson suffered another foot injury and because of the Covid craziness of college athletics in her sophomore year, gymnastics meets were regularly cancelled. Wilson had to deal with a Covid infection in January, so she didn’t get a chance to even compete as the Ladies prepared to go in April to the USA Gymnastics national championships — a competition for Division I, II and III schools (Centenary is in Division III).

“About three weeks before the event, coach Jackie told me ‘tag, you’re it’ for the bars competition,” Wilson said. “She was incredibly supportive in getting me ready.”

Still, she had never competed in bars as an individual event in college that was not an exhibition.

The first day, Wilson scored a 9.725 to qualify for the finals. The next day, she won the national championship with a 9.875 and was named as a First Team All-American.

“I didn’t go (to the competition) planning on winning a national championship,” she said. “I wanted to be there for my team. It just turned out that it happened that way.”

Centenary gymnastics competes in the Midwest Independent Conference with schools from all three NCAA divisions. Wilson finished ahead of four competitors from Division I schools to win the national title.

“The community that we have around our conference is so great,” she said. “Everybody is so nice. The other teams are easy to talk to. Everybody knows everybody and they are all there to celebrate with you.”

She trains in all four disciplines – vault, bars, beam, and floor exercise – but bars have always been her specialty. “It’s always been my favorite,” Wilson said. “To me, it’s the most fun. Just swinging and letting it all go. But I think it was always my best (event) when I was younger. It’s what I was recruited for.”

Earlier this year, the Ladies got to open their season against national powerhouse LSU, on a live SEC Network telecast, at a meet in Baton Rouge.

“It was incredible,” Wilson said. “The atmosphere is something we have never experienced. Being on TV was amazing and we had so much fun. That being our first meet and coming off of nationals, I felt like I did well.”

Winning an individual title is quite an accomplishment, but Wilson said that is not the best part of gymnastics. “I’d say being around my teammates and the close connections I have,” she said. “They are there for you and standing by your side. When I do a bar routine, all I hear is them screaming for me. That’s what makes it so much fun and such a joy.”

Photo courtesy CENTENARY COLLEGE