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Gadberry, Yarborough, Lopez, Bennett join SLU Hall of Fame

Posted: Friday, September 20, 2019 | Views: 920

Gadberry, Yarborough, Lopez, Bennett join SLU Hall of Fame

This Saturday, the Southeastern Louisiana Athletics Hall of Fame will add four members. Leading up to Saturday, LionSports.net profiled each new inductee.

Karin Smith Gadberry

When Karin Smith Gadberry arrived on the Southeastern Louisiana campus in the fall of 2001, it was a whole new world for the Washington state native.

Following her dream to play Division I softball in the South, Smith Gadberry took a late offer from then-SLU softball head coach Pete Langlois to join the Lady Lion program. The newest former Southeastern softball player to enter the Southeastern Athletics Hall of Fame’s decision to take Langlois’ offer shaped the rest of her life.

Following her four-year playing career, Smith Gadberry began her coaching career as a member of Langlois’ staff. She remains in the game today, as her 15th year of coaching career will start next spring as she serves as the head coach for the inaugural season of the Park University Gilbert softball program. Her coaching career has also included stops at West Virginia Tech, New Mexico Highlands and Grand Canyon.

When she first arrived in Hammond, Smith Gadberry was nearly 2,700 miles from home and understandably apprehensive about her new surroundings. Looking back to those times, Smith Gadberry credits two teammates for helping her through those early days.

“I was really fortunate to be teammates with a lot of inviting people during my time here,” Smith Gadberry commented. “When I first arrived in Hammond, Heather Dye and Christina Garsee took me under their wing and helped me get acclimated. What struck me most about our program was the family atmosphere. No matter what the occasion was, everybody was invited – no questions asked. Being included right away and the feeling of being part of a family helped me get comfortable here pretty quickly.”

Smith Gadberry also made the choice to work within the Southeastern Athletics department during her playing career. She credits her time working behind the scenes for Lion and Lady Lion events as a contributing factor to her chosen career path.

“Working in the athletics department gave me a unique view that a lot of student-athletes don’t get to see,” Smith, who worked in game operations, strength and conditioning, concessions and ticketing during her time in Hammond, commented. “I loved being involved with all the sports and that helped me realize that working in athletics was what I wanted to do the rest of my life.”

Smith Gadberry’s playing career wasn’t an immediate success story. An offseason automobile accident and Brooke Kostic being entrenched as a senior starter behind the plate limited her opportunities as a freshman. As a sophomore, she worked her way into the starting lineup and led the Lions with six home runs.

That sophomore season propelled her into what still stand as the two most prolific power seasons in school history. As a junior, she was named first team All-Southland Conference after hitting a single-season record 15 home runs to go with a program-best .757 slugging percentage, as well as a .368 batting average and 46 runs batted in.

Smith Gadberry followed with 14 home runs in her senior campaign, The only player in program history with multiple seasons of double-digit home runs, Smith Gadberry hit a Southeastern career record 37 home runs – a standard that still stands.

“Looking back, it’s pretty shocking, especially considering that it was harder to hit home runs than it was today with the improvements in bat technology,” Smith Gadberry said. “When you’re playing, you don’t have time to think about your accomplishments, you just do your job.”

With ample time to reflect on her career, there are several moments that stick out to Smith Gadberry. Smith Gadberry points out a sweep of former traditional Southland power UT Arlington during her senior year. That series saw the Lady Lions win all three games in their final at-bat with Smith Gadberry homering in all three contests.

Smith Gadberry also recounted setting a new single-season and career home run record in a SLU win over Southern Miss, which Smith Gadberry tabs as her favorite opponent. She also cites the opportunity to catch a trio of dominant pitchers – Rachel Ray, Sue Hill and Summer Delauneville – as some of her fondest memories.

“I was completely ecstatic when I received the call,” Smith said of her reaction to finding out about her induction, “To be in the Hall of Fame is a life-long dream. I’m excited for myself and my family to come back to Hammond and see everyone.”

Simmie Yarborough

Ask former Southeastern Louisiana wide receiver Simmie Yarborough to describe his success during his Hall of Fame playing career, he’ll tell you it was a case of right place, right time.

Those lucky enough to see him rack up record-breaking numbers on the gridiron for the Lions from 2008-11 know that the Brookaven, Mississippi native’s prodigious talent was also a huge factor. But Yarborough’s nod toward circumstance is indicative of the quiet humility that he represented Southeastern with throughout his record-setting career.

“I never saw myself as a spectacular player,” Yarborough commented. “I was just put in the right position. I was fortunate that my coaches trusted in what I could do. Being in the Hall of Fame is something I didn’t think could happen. I’m honored to be a part of such an exclusive group.”

Perhaps no Lion since the program returned from an 18-year hiatus prior to the 2003 season was more consistent than Yarborough. A four-time All-Southland Conference and three-time All-Louisiana selection during his SLU career, he sits atop the program’s all-time leaderboard with 229 receptions, 2,780 receiving yards and 30 receiving touchdowns. At the conclusion of his time in Hammond, Yarborough held the Southland record for receptions – a mark he held until last season.

After earning conference and state Freshman of the Year recognition in 2008, Yarborough was the team’s leading receiver in each of his final three seasons. He hauled in 57 catches for 803 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore, following that with a 60-catch season that yielded 709 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior.

He was named first team All-Southland Conference as a senior, grabbing a career-high 61 passes for 778 yards and three touchdowns. Yarborough is only player in school history with multiple seasons ranked in the program’s top five in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

Yarborough’s road to the Hall of Fame started during a track practice at Brookhaven High School. Then-SLU assistant coach Allen Rudolph recruited the area and instantly made Yarborough feel comfortable. A visit to campus solidified his decision to be a Lion.

“The players embraced me during my recruiting visit and the coaches let me know I was valued, but without pressuring me to make a decision,” Yarborough said. “Those factors, combined with SLU being an hour from home made it an easy decision.”

Yarborough’s favorite on-field memory during his time in the green and gold doubles as one of the post-2003 era of Lion football’s most memorable contests – a 51-50 win at Texas State during the 2009 season in which Yarborough caught seven passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns.

“We were down 24 points with 11 minutes to go and were able to come back and win,” Yarborough recalled. “I shed tears after that game.”

The Lions’ never-say-die attitude in the win over the Bobcats was a microcosm of the biggest lesson Yarborough learned during his time playing for former SLU head coach Mike Lucas.

“Coach Lucas was right we said that in the process of winning football games, we become better men,” Yarborough said. “Football prepares you for life. When times are tough in both in football and life, you quickly find out what kind of man you are.”

Post-playing career, Yarborough has been able to pass on those lessons. While his day job is selling automobiles in his current hometown of Mobile, Alabama, he also coaches a youth football team.

“I grew up in a single-parent home and my coaches were my father figures,” Yarborough said. “A lot of these young kids on my team are in similar situations. I’m honored to be able to give back what was given to me.”

Stefan Lopez

He accomplished what no other pitcher in Southeastern Louisiana history had ever done, earning a singular national award at the Division I level.

After a dominating 2012 season in which he compiled a 2-1 record and a miniscule 0.61 ERA to go with his nation-leading 20 saves, Stefan Lopez was named the National Stopper of the Year by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. The right-hander fanned 42 while walking just five in 29.1 innings of work and held opponents to a .179 batting average.

Since the award was created in 2005 only three pitchers outside the Power 5 conferences have earned the honor and Lopez was the last. To put it into further perspective, not only did he lead the nation in saves that season but the total set both a program and Southland Conference single-season record that still stands.

For all he accomplished in college, Lopez almost never wound up at Southeastern.

“I had some other opportunities and I didn’t really know much about Southeastern,” Lopez said. “We didn’t have the reputation we have now. Coach [Jay] Artigues and Coach [Matt] Riser were still building the foundation. I’m from a small community and was kind of focused on staying close to home.”

Riser and then pitching coach Justin Hill helped forge a relationship with Lopez that let him know, despite the distance, he would still be living in the same type of community with which he was comfortable and familiar.

Signed as a two-way player, it didn’t take long for Lopez to settle in primarily as a pitcher. In fact, he earned a spot in the weekend starting rotation his freshman season, although it lasted shorter than most of his usual relief appearances.

“We opened with Eastern Illinois,” Lopez said. “I was the Saturday starter, but I didn’t even make it out of the first inning. After that, I didn’t pitch for like three weeks. It tested me mentally. I expected a lot out of myself, but I wasn’t ready for it.”

During those ensuing weeks the Lions went on a tear, winning 24 of their first 27 games to climb into the national polls for the first time in program history.

Lopez’s next big chance came in the conference opener against UTSA. Down by five, the right-hander was called on in the fifth inning to help save the bullpen for the weekend, not the kind of role most pitchers relish. Southeastern would rally for a 10-9 win and Lopez earned the victory, his first collegiate decision.

“We won and I was still mad,” Lopez said. “It was selfish on my part, but that is where I started to develop a late-game mentality.”

Growing personally and as a player, Lopez took over the closer’s role as a sophomore. He recorded nine saves that season, but numbers alone didn’t indicate the break-out season that was on the way in 2012.

“I had a lot of opportunities and I took advantage of them,” Lopez said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it if it weren’t for my teammates. They kept it close. Guys like Jason Greenleaf, Dylan Hills and Josh Janway ate innings to get me those chances.”

The native of New Iberia, Louisiana, signed a professional contract with the New York Yankees just days after receiving the award. They had selected the then junior in the 16th round of the draft. Lopez would go on to enjoy a three-year professional career in the Bronx Bombers’ system, averaging more than one strikeout per inning.

Now the 28-year-old is back in familiar surroundings. He and his wife both work for Tabasco in Avery Island, Louisiana. They welcomed their first child, a son, about seven months ago.

In late April, with a chance to clear his head on a day off, the freshly-minted father was in the middle of a leisurely drive around Avery Island when he received an unexpected phone call from his former coach.

“It caught me by surprise,” Lopez said about receiving the news of his upcoming induction. “I’m so excited and appreciative. Not many people ever get this honor.”

Lopez is the 20th former baseball player out of 147 members inducted in the Southeastern Athletics Hall of Fame, joining former teammate Cass Hargis who was inducted in 2017.

Bryan Bennett

Bryan Bennett arrived on the Southeastern Louisiana campus in the spring of 2013 with the clothes he was wearing and a small duffel bag and left two years later as one of the most decorated student-athletes in the history of Southeastern Athletics.

Bennett, who will be inducted into the SLU Athletics Hall of Fame on Saturday along with Karin Smith Gadberry, Simmie Yarborough and Stefan Lopez, took a unique path to Lion immortality.

In the fall of 2012, Bennett was a sophomore at Oregon, where he played in 17 games under center for the Ducks. Following the sophomore season, Bennett was stuck behind future Heisman Trophy winner and No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft Marcus Mariota on the Oregon depth chart. Bennett’s desire to play opened thoughts of transferring.

“I talked to (then-Oregon head) Coach (Chip) Kelly and he really wanted me to stay,” Bennett said. “I liked it at Oregon and he had pretty much convinced me to continue my career there.”

That all changed in January, when Kelly was announced as the new head coach of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. Bennett began looking again for a new home. Several signs pointed to Hammond, America.

“I had been to the Manning Passing Academy (in Thibodaux) and really loved Louisiana,” Bennett commented. “I had always envisioned living in the South. Some of my former coaches told me that Southeastern was really trying to build something special. (Then-SLU defensive coordinator) Pete Golding and (then-SLU head coach) Ron Roberts told me to come down and check it out. I packed a small duffel bag and flew in to New Orleans.”

Once arriving in Hammond, the then 20-year old, who grew up in the Encino neighborhood in Los Angeles and had begun his collegiate career at a FBS power in the Pac-12 Conference, knew he was in for a whole different experience.

“I love Hammond and Southeastern, but I’ll admit that when I first got there, my first reaction was that it was a lot smaller than what I was used to,” Bennett said. “I wasn’t sure it was for me.”

Bennett softened his stance pretty quickly. He points to a conversation with a pair of fellow future Lion All-Americans as a swaying influence.

“When I started meeting the other players and becoming more familiar with the town and campus, I realized this was a place I could see myself,” Bennett recalled. “I remember having a conversation with (linebacker) Cqulin Hubert and (running back/kick returner) Xavier Roberson. They both convinced me that if I were to come to Southeastern, we could turn things around in a hurry.

“Between seeing the town, being embraced by my teammates and the excitement around the program, I knew I was in the right place,” Bennett continued. “All I had was that duffel bag I brought with me, but I had found my new home and I didn’t need to leave.”

The season before Bennett came to Hammond was the first under Roberts. The Lions posted a 5-2 record in Southland Conference play. But the one conference loss that Bennett’s new teammates kept bringing up was a 70-0 defeat at conference champion and eventual national runner-up Sam Houston State.

“I can remember guys talking about losing, 70-0, to Sam and that was motivation for us,” Bennett said. “I knew we weren’t going to let that happen again.”

Bennett and the Lions’ 2013 campaign stands as the finest since the program returned prior to the 2003 season, as SLU finished 11-3 and a perfect 7-0 in league play en route to its first Southland Conference title. The Lions had to go through Sam Houston State on the way to the championship, defeating the then-No. 4 Bearkats, 34-21, in Hammond in the second last week of the regular season.

As a junior, Bennett threw for 3,165 yards and 21 touchdowns, while also rushing for 1,046 yards and a single-season school record 16 scores. For his efforts, he earned Southland Conference Player of the Year, as well as Louisiana Newcomer and Offensive Player of the Year accolades. After leading SLU to a No. 4 national seed, Bennett was a first team All-America selection by the College Sports Journal and finished eighth in the Walter Payton Award voting.

In the second round of the 2013 FCS playoffs, Bennett was a perfect 6-for-6 on a game-winning six-play, 85-yard scoring drive that gave SLU a 30-29 comeback win over Sam Houston State. Bennett was selected the Southland Offensive Player of the Year as a senior after leading the Lions to a 9-4 record and back-to-back conference championships and playoff appearances.

Bennett cites the playoff win over the Bearkats in 2013 as one of his most memorable contests. But his final game on the Strawberry Stadium turf in 2014 against a nationally-ranked McNeese squad was a close second.

“We were pretty much in a must-win situation if we wanted to make the playoffs and defend our championship,” Bennett said of the 2014 McNeese contest. “I had injured my foot and honestly should’ve been standing on the sidelines in a boot. But it was Senior Day and we had to have that win, so I just had to suck it up.”

Bennett did more than that against the rival Cowboys. With the season on the line, Bennett threw four touchdown passes to lead SLU to a 28-9 victory.

Following graduation, Bennett signed as a free agent with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. Vying to be the Colts’ third quarterback behind 2012 No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck and long-time NFL veteran Matt Hasselbeck, Bennett made it to the final day before being released.

After being cut, Bennett returned to Hammond before receiving a call from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League. He signed with the Bombers and was on the team’s practice squad.

After being released by Winnipeg and failing to catch on with the Saskatchewan Roughriders after a training camp invite, Bennett returned to his alma mater as a coach at Crespi High School. He began to believe his playing days might be over.

Bennett’s football career was revived in an unorthodox manner, as he took part in the inaugural season of the Your Call Football league. After a successful stint, he was immediately signed again by Winnipeg and played all 16 games for the Blue Bombers in 2018.

“That was a grueling stretch for me,” Bennett claimed. “I signed with Winnipeg as soon as the YCF season was over, so from April to November, I played for 24 straight weeks.”

Bennett is currently a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, playing backup quarterback and serving as a special teams standout. The Roughriders, who recently inducted SLU running backs coach/passing game coordinator Kerry Joseph into their Hall of Fame, deploy the athletic Bennett similarly to the way New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton uses his own jack-of-all-trades Taysom Hill.

As luck would have it, Hall of Fame Saturday in Strawberry Stadium coincides with the Roughriders’ bye week, allowing one of the Lion greats to be recognized in person.

“I had chills through my whole body when I got the call that I was going to be inducted into the Southeastern Athletics Hall of Fame and I’m honored to be included,” Bennett commented. "I'm looking forward to eating some good Louisiana food, walking through Friendship Circle and being back in Strawberry Stadium one more time.”
 
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