It really shouldn't come as a surprise when a coach in the game long enough to accumulate more wins than all but one other person in NCAA softball history announces that the time to walk away is at hand.
That LSU coach Yvette Girouard caught most off guard with just such a declaration last week, making public her intention to retire at the conclusion of the 2011 season, says a lot about how she stayed at the top of the sport for more than three decades. She was a rare combination in coaching, although perhaps a common one among the all-time greats. She was successful beyond her years when she started a program from scratch at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana-Lafayette) on a salary of $3,000 that she complemented by working part-time in her family's restaurant. Yet by the time she moved into a state-of-art softball facility at LSU for the 2009 season, she was still as stubbornly competitive as that 20-something who dragged the field at USL with her dad's truck.
But while a softball game can theoretically last through eternity, a coaching career has entirely human limitations.
"I've been feeling it coming on," Girouard said. "I've turned over a lot of the recruiting to my assistant coaches. I didn't feel that great about myself knowing that I wasn't devoted to it 100 percent of the time. You know, it consumed my life for so long that I had to pull away because I was just overwhelmed by it sometimes. I have a lot of ego myself, and if I don't think I'm doing the very best job that I can do, then I owed it to LSU to walk away."
The timing, of course, wasn't easy or ideal, coming just under a month into a new season in which LSU remains ranked in the Top 25 and on the eve of an SEC schedule that commences with five games against Florida and Georgia. But once she made up her mind and told school officials, she said a consensus was reached to make the announcement public, in part to ensure that the players heard it directly from her before whispers started.
"Ironically, this is a team that really likes me," quipped Girouard while describing telling the news to her players. "There were a lot of tears, a lot of people were stunned. It's never a good time, but at least they were all together. I told them that I would be here, I'm going to live in Baton Rouge and I'm going to be at all the games. I'm going to be the biggest fan."
She will also remain one of softball's seminal figures, a fixture as the sport took hold in the South long before the SEC entered into the battle in the 1990s. Her coaching career began at Lafayette High School in 1977, a year after graduating from Southwestern Louisiana, where she played volleyball. At the time, the position fulfilled her lifelong ambition of becoming a physical education teacher and coach at the high school level. But when her alma mater came calling, she took on the challenge, complete with uniforms her mom made and only partial scholarships for more than a decade. Her first team finished 7-15 in 1981. It would be the last time one of her teams finished with a losing record. In 1993, she led the Ragin' Cajuns to the Women's College World Series, the first of three trips in a four-season span.
I think from here on in, what's awesome is that little girls are now athletes instead of tomboys, and because of TV, little girls can look up to big girls and women instead of their heroes being Derek Jeter. Their role models can actually be women.” -- LSU coach Yvette Girouard
When LSU came calling in 2001, after restarting its program following a long hiatus, she made the move to Baton Rouge. That decision remains the source of bad blood between the schools, which no longer play in the regular season. It's a situation that Girouard -- who admitted her own share of blame in how things were handled at the time -- hopes changes once she is removed from the equation. In the meantime, she led LSU to a pair of World Series appearances, helping establish the SEC's national credentials.
All of it, good and bad, is part of the sport's history -- a history Girouard felt creeping up on her in recent months. She said the school's chancellor tried to talk her out of retiring, but the signs were inescapable. When LSU played Texas recently, Girouard was stunned to learn that nobody in her dugout had any idea who Longhorns assistant coach Jennifer McFalls was. Girouard had recruited McFalls at USL barely 20 years ago, only to lose the future Olympian to Texas A&M.
It was a sad reminder of how easy it is to forget the sport's pre-television history, yet it also came in a setting that made it impossible to ignore the irony that today's players have the luxury of forgetting those who came before them because of what the latter built.
"To see where it's come from, I remind our players every day of the history of our sport," Girouard said. "And I think it's sort of sad that some of that will be lost. But I think from here on in, what's awesome is that little girls are now athletes instead of tomboys, and because of TV, little girls can look up to big girls and women instead of their heroes being Derek Jeter.
"Their role models can actually be women."
Girouard helped make that a reality. And she earned the right to script her own departure.
• The top spot in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 has changed hands every week, and it may again after No. 1 Alabama dropped a 1-0 decision against Louisiana-Lafayette and ace Ashley Brignac. All the same, playing five teams with legitimate NCAA tournament aspirations, Alabama outscored the opposition 21-2 and won four of five games, beating Notre Dame, Fordham, Oregon and Virginia. Freshman Jackie Traina struck out 28 and walked just three in 19 innings for the Crimson Tide, in addition to driving in all four runs in Sunday's 4-0 win against Virginia.• The only teams to beat UCLA at least twice since the beginning of last season? Arizona State, Washington and Baylor. The Bears joined the list behind 14 strikeouts from Whitney Canion in a 5-1 win in San Diego on Friday. Almost as notably, Canion doubled in the game against the Bruins. In 24 at-bats this season, she has 10 hits, including three doubles and two home runs. Canion totaled just 12 at-bats for Baylor before this season.
• Michigan keeps rolling along, as is the way of the world when it comes to softball in Ann Arbor. All of which explains how Carol Hutchins has piled up more than 1,200 wins. She reached that milestone courtesy of an 8-3 win against Ball State on Saturday and added No. 1,201 against South Florida on Sunday. Bree Evans and Nicole Sappingfield, the top of the order for Michigan, each went 9-of-17 at the plate and combined for 10 runs and nine RBIs over the weekend.
• Arizona State's Mandy Urfer collected nine RBIs, including at least one in each game, as her team breezed to a 5-0 record in the Wilson/DeMarini Invitational (featuring five of 27 consecutive home games to open the season the Sun Devils). Beset by injuries at times in her career but sneakily productive when healthy, Urfer leads the Sun Devils in RBIs this season.
• Memphis sophomore Carly Hummel struck out a school-record 19 batters but couldn't get the win after an unearned run handed Texas A&M a 1-0 win in nine innings Sunday. Loss aside, the performance adds to an impressive start for Hummel, who went the distance to beat Stanford in Palo Alto last week and owns wins against Kentucky, Ohio State and Lipscomb.
Virginia: Win three out of every five games played at Virginia and you're beating recent history for a program with three winning seasons in the past seven tries. And while coach Eileen Schmidt and the Cavaliers may have their sights set a little higher after reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time last season, another 3-2 weekend rates as a distinct positive. Virginia knocked off a ranked opponent for the second weekend in a row, this time Oregon at the Citrus Classic tournament in Florida (a week after beating Hawaii in Cathedral City, Calif.). Just as wins last season against Michigan, Arizona and Louisiana-Lafayette made Virginia's at-large case for the NCAA tournament, these wins will be valuable come May. And the Oregon win may be valuable in another way, if it means that ace Melanie Mitchell will be rested come the postseason. Mitchell was in the circle when the Cavaliers beat the Rainbow Wahine last week, but it was freshman Erica Cipolloni who got the start and the win against the Ducks. Mitchell has already started 14 of 19 games this season and thrown 91 2/3 innings (she threw 286 2/3 innings as a freshman last season). But if Cipolloni can make a dent in that workload, even if she's not beating Pac-10 teams every time out, it would only help the cause.
Long Beach State: College softball is just a little more interesting when a program like Long Beach State -- which made five appearances in the Women's College World Series between 1986 and 1993 -- is in the thick of the discussion. And in no small part thanks to a freshman too young to remember any of that history firsthand, the 49ers are winning again after slipping to a .500 finish last season. A week after beating Oklahoma, freshman Erin Jones-Wesley no-hit Baylor to cap a weekend in which Long Beach went 4-1 at a tournament in San Diego, with additional wins against BYU, Houston and Fresno State. In Jones-Wesley, Brooke Turner and Taylor Petty, there are three quality options in the circle. As important for a team that struggled to produce runs last season, an offense led by Nalani St. Germain -- who went 9-of-14 at the plate with a home run and four RBIs -- is scoring better than four runs per game against a quality schedule.Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.