In five years as associate head coach at McNeese State, Garry Brodhead helped build a program that in each of the past two seasons won 26 games and made NCAA tournament appearances.
Brodhead hopes to produce the same success at his alma mater after being hired last spring as the 12th head coach at Louisiana.
A 1980 graduate of the university, Brodhead was a pole vaulter and a women’s basketball graduate assistant coach for the Ragin’ Cajuns. He also had a successful 10-year run as the girls basketball head coach at Teurlings Catholic in Lafayette and started the Acadiana Stars AAU program.
The Cajuns, coming off a 7-23 campaign, open the regular season Friday at Southern in Baton Rouge.
“I’m just excited to be back in Lafayette,” Brodhead recently said on the Sun Belt Conference women’s basketball Media Day. “I was gone for a little while and I’m originally from here, so the excitement for me is great. I’m excited to get a chance to build a program.”
Brodhead replaces Errol Rogers, who resigned last spring after going 38-113 in five seasons with the Cajuns. He inherits a program that has fallen on tough times after going 25-9, winning the Sun Belt West Division title and making its first NCAA tournament appearance in the 2006-07 season.
The Cajuns must rebuild after losing their top five scorers and finishing 1-15 in conference action. Their roster is a mix of four returning players (one senior and three sophomores) and seven newcomers (one junior, one sophomore and five freshmen).
Senior guard Brandi Schambough (0.8 ppg) and sophomore guards Brooklyn Arceneaux (4.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg), Robbie Brown (3.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg) and Megan Whittaker (3.7 ppg, 0.9 rpg) are back from last season. Brown started 15 games as a freshman, while Arceneaux made seven starts a season ago. Whittaker also had one start.
Schambough, Arceneaux and Brown all played for Brodhead’s oldest daughter, Ashley Richard, at St. Thomas More. Arceneaux was the Class 5A MVP and Brown made the all-district and all-area team as seniors when STM won the 2011 state title. Whittaker was all-county as a junior and senior at West Forsyth High School in Cumming, Ga.
Two of the newcomers are transfers: junior guard/forward Ashley Benjamin from Tyler Junior College and sophomore forward Byronesha Santiago from Lon Morris Junior College.
Benjamin, a strong defender, averaged 9.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals last season. Santiago was a WBCA honorable mention All-American and Region XIV freshman of the year after averaging 15.5 points and 7.7 rebounds a season ago.
The other additions are freshmen from high school: guards Kia Wilridge, Keke Veal and Sylvana Okde, forward Jasmine Mills and guard/forward Adrienne Prejean.
Wilridge and Veal, former McNeese State signees, won state championships in each of their final two years at STM. Wilridge averaged 18 points and was first-team all-state as a senior. Veal was all-state and MVP of the state final as a junior (Class 5A) and senior (Class 4A).
Okde averaged 15 points as a senior to lead Westbury Christian in Houston, Texas, to the TAPPS Class 4A state title. Mills was all-state as a junior and senior at Assumption High School in Belle Rose. This past season Prejean led Lafayette High to the Class 5A state title and was the Class 5A MVP.
Fortunately, Brodhead has been a part of rebuilding projects in the past. McNeese State had three 20-win seasons and never made the postseason before winning 26 games and the Southland Conference tournament for a spot in the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons.
In going 26-7 during the 2010-11 season, the Cowgirls set the program’s wins record and matched the top one-year turnaround in NCAA history after coming off a 7-22 campaign. Last season they won the SLC tournament for the second straight year and nearly upset SEC regular-season champion Kentucky in the NCAA tournament, 68-62. Brodhead also won nine district championships and one state title and advanced to the state semifinals six times in 10 years as the girls head coach at Teurlings Catholic.
“Everywhere I’ve taken a job it’s been part of a process to build a program back up,” Brodhead said. “The excitement is still there for me because I see the potential here. People say that’s a dangerous word, but I see it.”
The Cajuns won an exhibition game against NCAA Division III Centenary, 108-38, on Saturday after shooting 12-for-28 from 3, forcing 32 turnovers and holding the Ladies to 28.3 percent shooting.
Schambough made 6-of-11 shots from 3 and finished with a game-high 22 points. Okde added 15 points and six assists. Santiago put up 12 points and 11 rebounds. Benjamin had 12 points and eight rebounds. Wilridge logged 11 points, five assists and three steals, and Veal added nine points, eight steals, five rebounds and five assists. Whittaker chipped in 10 points.
Prior to the exhibition win over Centenary, Brodhead said the Cajuns had focused most of their time in the preseason on the defensive end. Like at McNeese State, defense will be the catalyst for the Cajuns and have a major role in determining who plays in Brodhead’s system.
“We’d like to play full court now, but that’s going to be tough with the number of kids we have that can actually do it,” he said. “We’re going to try to build it on defense. Our style of defense is man-to-man, team defense. We want to get in the passing lanes and make people play fast. We like to play transition basketball and get up and down (the floor).”
As for leadership, Brodhead is accepting that responsibility going into this season.
“I can definitely tell you the leadership is coming from me,” he said. “When you take over a program it’s hard to ask for a kid to lead if they haven’t been part of it before. I’m a firm believer that I’ve got to take the lead and show them the way.”
Brodhead added that he’s been particularly impressed in the preseason by Wilridge.
“She works really hard and goes 110 miles per hour,” he said. “She’s very, very talented, but as far as her leadership goes she’ll lead by example. I’m extremely excited about Kia because she goes so hard on both sides of the floor.”
Brodhead didn’t share much more specific praise outside of his kind words about Wilridge, saying he’s evaluating “everybody else one day at a time.”
The main challenge, Brodhead said, in turning around the Cajuns will be developing consistency in the program.
“It’s about getting your players to be consistent,” Brodhead said. “The kids will work hard one day and then the next day it’s an uphill battle. I’ve seen more consistency. It’s getting better, but it’s still a work in progress. It takes time to change a culture.”