College basketball team enjoys most of hurricane relocation trip

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Austin Claunch is 31, 800 miles from home and lying in a dorm bed at 2 a.m., waiting for students to chat outside his door to go to bed.

It’s a scene he never could have imagined a month ago, but Claunch agrees. Well, most of the time.

“I was tired as hell this morning,” he laughs.

These aren’t ordinary students making too much noise in a hallway. They are male basketball players from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, and Claunch is their coach. And for the past 17 days, they’ve called the eighth floor of Palmer Hall in eastern Kentucky home after evacuating Thibodaux due to Hurricane Ida. As the team heads home this week, a trip born out of necessity after one of the most destructive storms to ever make landfall in Louisiana has turned into a team bonding experience for one of the less affluent programs in Division I hoops for men.


Nicholls State is a small public school of just over 5,500 undergraduate students in rural Louisiana, about 60 miles west of New Orleans. It is located in the northern part of the parish of Lafourche, which was perhaps the area most affected by the devastation of Ida after the storm made landfall on August 29. Parish Sheriff’s Office Captain Brennan Matherne says NPR that “100% of Lafourche’s structures” suffered damage and that the area lost electricity, running water and cellular service due to the damage. The president of the parish of Lafourche Archie Chaisson felt that 25% of the houses in the parish are either completely destroyed or uninhabitable. Fortunately for Nicholls, the campus suffered only “moderate” damage, in part because it is slightly further north of the Gulf of Mexico than other areas of Lafourche. And while the clean-up process is not yet complete, in-person classes resume on campus on Monday.

Hurricane warnings happen every year in Thibodaux, just as they do in many parts of the state. But as the last week of August wore on, Claunch and the rest of Nicholls’ coaching staff began to realize that the worst was yet to come.

“I was sitting with my roommate [on Friday], looking at stuff, and [we] turned to each other and said, ‘I don’t know if we should stay here, man. It happens, ”said Nicholls director of basketball operations Stevie Repichowski.

After making sure the entire team had places to go, Repichowski evacuated to Hattiesburg, Miss. Claunch crouched in Thibodaux during the storm before finally heading to Mobile, Alabama after the storm passed and the extent of its damage became evident.

A National Guard vehicle crosses the Nicholls State University campus.

A National Guard vehicle crosses the Nicholls State campus after Hurricane Ida.

Before that, however, Claunch took to campus to try and assess things for himself the day after Ida landed. Trees and power lines had fallen all over town. When he finally arrived on campus, he was turned away by first responders at the scene who did not let him go to his office or the arena. At this point, he realized it would be a long-term hiatus, so he called a staff meeting on FaceTime to discuss options for the team. The goal?

“Let’s see if we can get somewhere fast, and we can do it like a 2-3 week training camp and really benefit from it, almost like a team retreat,” Claunch recalls.

Staff have split up, with the five coaches working on the phone with friends across the Southeast trying to find temporary homes for 16 players and the coaches to sleep, eat and train. It also had to be affordable: Nicholls State has the smallest men’s basketball budget of all non-HBCUs in Division I, at just under $ 800,000 a year, the sixth smallest of all DIs. The five most recent programs to move from Division II to Division I each had higher budgets in D-II than Nicholls in DI.

Perhaps no one in college sport understands Nicholls’ budgetary challenges better than Eastern Kentucky athletic director Matt Roan. Roan got his first AD job at Nicholls in 2016 and is the one who hired Claunch in 2018 before becoming AD at EKU in 2020. Claunch and associate head coach Nick Bowman called Roan on Wednesday morning. Roan’s response was immediate: he wanted Nicholls to join them in Richmond.

“We didn’t want to put a calendar on it. We didn’t want to add pressure or stress to them, ”says Roan. “Really, it was an open invitation that said, ‘Come and use our residences, use our dining rooms, use our sports facilities,’ and luckily we had the capacity.”

Regarding finances, Roan says they only charge Nicholls what they need to be billed under NCAA rules, using price figures for food and accommodation comparable to a summer camp. .

“We weren’t interested in creating income or trying to seize an opportunity,” says Roan.

“Matt understands what we don’t have,” says Claunch. “‘You guys come here, we’ll charge you what we have to charge you, pay us when you can pay us and we’ll figure it all out. “”

It was settled. The coaches called the players that evening and delivered a message to them: See you in Richmond, Ky. On Sunday. A bus would make the 12-hour drive to Thibodaux on Sunday morning, but some players have chosen to drive themselves or fly.

Repichowski took the bus with the team, but first he had to take as much gear as possible to the team’s locker room to make sure the players were equipped for training. After convincing the National Guard to let him into the arena for 30 minutes, he filled duffel bags with shoes, training shirts, the team’s video camera and whatever else he could find. in the dark, with only his flashlight to guide him.

“You don’t realize how really dark it gets when there is no street lights, no electricity anywhere,” Repichowski says. “When I walked into our gym, I could barely see my hand in front of my face. “

Once in Kentucky, the team quickly settled into their new excavation at Palmer Hall. Each player and coach has a dorm for themselves, and the team has the eighth floor to themselves in what is otherwise a dormitory entirely for freshmen. An EKU student told Repichowski in the elevator that he heard that the eighth floor was haunted, but the team did not experience any paranormal activity.

Nicholls-State-University-2

Thus, for 17 days, the players and coaches of Nicholls have lived as students of the EKU. They train as often as NCAA rules allow, then return to the dorms and hang out together. They eat together in the dining room. Groups of players will be heading to the cinema or the mall, and the team participated in a beach volleyball tournament with the EKU fraternities and sororities last week. When EKU had their home opener last weekend, Claunch was on the sidelines with Roan and the players sat in the student section with their new friends.

“When I saw them [in the student section]It was clear that they knew people, that they had met people, ”says Claunch. “It was like another home campus for them.”

Now the team is on their way home. His last training at EKU was on Tuesday afternoon, and the long bus ride back to Thibodaux started on Wednesday morning. Claunch gives the team the rest of the week to see the family and relocate to dorms and apartments before resuming team activities next week. Repichowski called on the owners of the players to make sure everyone’s power was restored before the team returned, and luckily the whole roster will have power. The program also plans to help the parish community of Lafourche to rebuild itself once back in town. He has finalized a deal with the LSU men’s basketball team to come to Thibodaux for a charity exhibition match on October 23, which will raise funds for hurricane relief in the region. Claunch expects the 3,800-seat team gymnasium to be packed that day.

But while a homecoming is welcomed by everyone involved in the program, players and coaches say they loved the experience in Richmond.

“We have established a very good relationship with the people on campus,” said senior forward Ryghe Lyons. “We had to go take pictures with people because they wanted something to remember us.”

Perhaps more importantly, the trip strengthened the bonds within the team.

“At first I didn’t know how it was going to turn out because we all have our own apartments and our own things, but it worked,” Lyons says. “We became very close as a team, we spent 95% of the day together. The trip helped us in a way that our stay in Thibodaux would not have.

Meanwhile, Roan is just grateful that he was able to lend a helping hand.

“This place means everything to me,” Roan says. “Whenever I am in a position where I can positively impact a place and people that I hold so dear to my heart, I will not hesitate.”

“It’s great to be able to live this collegial experience, we just did it [for them] about a 12 hour drive.

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