Last August, six years after Hurricane Katrina turned his world upside down, Aaron Ernest enjoyed a homecoming of sorts about 75 miles from where the devastating storm destroyed his house.
But the time away did nothing to make Ernest, who was only 11 years old when Katrina struck, forget where he came from.
The Birmingham, Ala., suburb of Homewood, it turns out, was only a temporary stop for the former New Orleans East resident, who grew up loving all Louisiana sports — namely the Saints and Hornets … and LSU.
“I’ve been an LSU fan for so long; I can’t figure it out,” said Ernest. “But it’s that way with any sport. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Saints, the Hornets or LSU. I’m a hometown fan.”
The official homecoming came when he enrolled at the school after a standout two-sport career at Homewood High, ultimately choosing track and the sprint events over football offers from Kentucky and Wake Forest.
There will be a bigger celebration, however, when his mom, siblings and some old friends — and perhaps his high-school coach — gather in LSU’s Bernie Moore Track Stadium for the Southeastern Conference Championships to be held Thursday through Sunday.
They’re coming to see one of the jewels of coach Dennis Shaver’s 2011 recruiting class in Ernest, who was ranked third in the nation in both the 100 and 200 meters during his senior season at Homewood.
After capping his high-school career by winning the Alabama Class 6A state titles in both sprints and also taking the long jump title, he will be lining up against some of the nation’s best sprinters this weekend — something he said he couldn’t have dreamed of after his first two years of high school.
“No one will believe me, but my first two years of track were awful,” Ernest said Monday. “It just didn’t work out.”
But after consistently running subpar times in the 100 with a personal best of only 11.00 seconds, Ernest hit his stride as a junior. He ran a 10.48 in the state sectionals, which got him on the radar of Shaver’s staff.
But football was still in the picture for Ernest, who excelled as a wide receiver. He was good enough to earn honorable mention status on the Birmingham News’ All-South team in 2010.
“We watched him run, but we expected him to go somewhere and play football,” Shaver said. “We recruited him, but he told us in November or December (of 2010) he was going to try football. I told him that if he changed his mind to keep us in mind and check back with us. ”
As it turned out, Shaver’s phone rang only a month or two later.
“He didn’t get the (football) offers that he wanted, and he wanted to know if our offer still stood,” he said.
Just like that, football’s loss was LSU track’s gain.
After making a commitment to track, Ernest continued to drop his times in high school. He posted a PR of 10.33 seconds and had a slightly wind-aided time of 10.17, which solidified his decision to stick with track on two levels.
“I knew I was coming to school here when I ran the 10.4,” Ernest said. “I made up my mind then I was coming here to run. Then, when I ran the 10.17, it convinced me to stay with track.”
After struggling in the indoor season, mainly because he didn’t run indoor track in high school, Ernest has blossomed this spring.
He finished second in both the Texas Relays and Penn Relays, running a 10.15 wind-aided time at Texas — which has him tied for the sixth-fastest mark in the nation — and a wind-legal PR of 10.26 a week ago at Penn.
Ernest also runs the 200 and second leg on the Tigers’ 4x100-meter relay team that ran a season-best of 39.49 seconds at Penn.
“I’m definitely more comfortable running outdoors,” Ernest said, even though he was the runner-up in the 200 at the SEC indoor meet in February. “I haven’t done it a lot, and running the 60 and 200 indoors is a lot different. It’s almost like another sport.
“I didn’t know what to expect in the indoor season, but I’ve been running well lately outdoors.”
“Aaron has done everything we could have asked for from a freshman,” he said. “He’s had a personal best in the 100, and he’s someone we think can make the final, as a freshman, in both the 100 and 200 this week.
“I would say he’s one of the best freshman (sprinters) we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Shaver, who came to LSU in 1995. “The thing that excites me is he does some technical things that I know he’ll do a lot better at when he becomes more of a physical specimen. He’s got excellent top-end speed.”