If you’re more of a traditional football-and-basketball-only sports fan, the eight-member UL Athletics Hall of Fame class may not seem like an elite group filled with familiar names.
But if you look at the total impact locally, nationally and even internationally each honoree made, it’ll be difficult to come up with a more prestigious and accomplished group.
The class — inducted Friday night, then recognized at halftime of the Cajuns' homecoming win over Texas State on Saturday — consists of two All-American softball sluggers in Kathy Morton and Stephanie DeFeo; ground-breaking track and field coach Charles Lancon; former Major League pitcher Jose Alvarez; volleyball standout Priscilla Lima, world-renowned gymnastics father-daughter duo of Jeff and Leigh Hennessy; and the former No. 1-ranked tennis doubles partners Ashley Rhoney and Bret Garnett.
That group is joined by a well-known football player: cornerback Ike Taylor of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I’ve been asked several times if this is the best class ever,” UL Letterman’s Club President Ken Meyers said. “To me, every class has to go up against Ron Guidry and his five Gold Gloves and his Cy Young Award and his two championship rings. But I tell you what, in terms of both what they did NCAA, what they did on a professional level and this class is probably the first class where they did it on an international stage … best class ever? It has to be in the conversation.”
Best in the world
Take the trampolining father-daughter Hennessy duo, for instance.
Old-school UL basketball fans probably remember the trampolining exhibitions the Hennessy’s put on during halftime at Blackham Coliseum. Jeff doubled as a UL physical education professor and the head coach of U.S. Trampoline team for years, winning nine world titles between 1964-80.
In Lafayette, he led the trampoline team to 12 straight national AAU team titles from 1964-75.
He was inducted into the World Acrobatics Society Hall of Fame in 2005 and the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1992.
Leigh joined her father in 2005 and 2007 after winning two world titles and 10 national championships.
No. 1 nationally
Also, think of the uniqueness of the tennis doubles teams of Rhoney and Garnett. In 1987, they were ranked No. 1 nationally by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, and ranked as high as No. 2 the following season.
“I knew when they decided to attend UL that we had young men of great character along with being excellent tennis players,” former UL tennis coach Gary Albertine said. “I had no idea that they would make such an impact on our tennis team and the entire Lafayette community. They became All-Americans in every sense of the word.”
Garnett and Rhoney left the Cajuns to join the professional tennis ranks, as did Alvarez as an ex-big leaguer and Lima, Taylor into the NFL and Lima, who is still competing in the Brazilian pro beach volleyball league.
Still going strong
Alvarez became the first UL pitcher to throw a nine-inning no-hitter since Guidry in an 11-0 win over UTA in 1978. He was later drafted in the eighth round by the Atlanta Braves. He had an 18-year career, including four in the Major Leagues.
Alvarez still holds school records with 12 complete games, five shutouts in a season and eight in a career, and he has the third-best ERA in school history.
In the Major Leagues and on the PGA Tour, he’s more known for being a chaplain and big brother to many athletes.
“Jose was a mentor to me in so many ways,” Hall of Fame former Braves pitcher John Smoltz said. “He was responsible for looking after me as a young player in Richmond, and his leadership brought me under his wing and cared for me as a human being, and not for just what I could do on the baseball field.
“He cared about my heart and my character and sought out a relationship that still exists today, and I do call him a dear friend. I am forever grateful for Jose in showing me how to pay it forward in the game of baseball and life.”
Lima played volleyball with the Cajuns from 1999-2003 and is still playing professionally today. She still ranks in the top five in program history with 1,228 kills and 1,187 digs, but she’s made an even bigger name for herself in the sport professionally in the NVL, AVP and the FIVB.
“Priscilla is one of the best athletes and one of the best personalities in all of the volleyball world,” said Kerri Walsh Jennings, a three-time U.S. Olympian.
All-Americans for any age
In sports like softball, opportunities to play professionally weren’t there in the 1990s when Morton and DeFeo were All-American hitters for Yvette Girouard’s powerhouse UL teams.
These days, offense has been legislated into the NCAA game. But even in the deadball era they played in, Morton and DeFeo stood out. Morton was a two-time first-team All-American and played in two Women’s College World Series teams.
She hit .398, and when she left the program, Morton was UL’s all-time leader in 12 offensive categories.
“Pitching was still so dominating; the bats weren’t as good as they are now; the teaching wasn’t as good,” Girouard said of Morton. “It was all about trying to get on base. But she was a true hitter. Her eye was excellent, her hands were quick. She was just gifted with a lot of offensive talent. I knew I’d probably never coach another hitter like that again.”
DeFeo was a three-time All-American and left as the program’s all-time home run hitter.
Lancon: miracle worker
Coaches are often recognized for how they turned programs around. Few if any Sun Belt Conference programs were ever turned around as dramatically as Lancon transformed UL’s track and field program.
In 1991, he ended a 21-year track conference title drought with American South men’s and women’s titles. Before he died of a heart attack in 2002, Lancon ended up leading UL to 17 conference titles in track and cross country, including winning all four men’s and women’s titles in both sports in 1993. He was the Sun Belt’s Coach of the Year 14 times.
“Nobody ever deserved this more,” UL assistant track coach then and now Tommy Badon said. “He was not only a great coach but an even better man, a good husband, father, friend and boss. His death affected all of us, but he died doing what he loved the best — coaching the Cajuns.”
Taylor legend started early
Throughout his 12-year NFL career as a top-notch cover cornerback, an infamous story always came to my mind when watching Taylor on television.
During his first two years on campus in Lafayette before playing his last two seasons with the Cajuns, we’d periodically get strange telephone calls from an unknown Ike Taylor fan, who would tell us things like: “I just saw a race on campus between Ike Taylor and the fastest guys on the UL football team … and Ike smoked them all. Y’all better watch out for this Ike Taylor kid.”
Imagine my surprise when Taylor was running the ball as a junior and then showing off his cover skills as a senior. Even more when the New Orleans native was drafted in the fourth round by the Steelers in 2003 and retired there as a two-time Super Bowl champion 12 years later.