A long dry spell comes to an end

Guest Column

A quarter-century is a long time, it is even longer if you’re a high school student who hasn’t had the chance to experience that longevity of life yet. To those of us who’ve been around the sun a few dozen times, it’s not that much, but 25 years is an eternity for a Wyoming high school basketball team to watch the state tournament from the stands.

That 25-year break in state tournament play by the Shoshoni Wranglers came to an end Friday with a gritty 31-27 win over defending state champion Rocky Mountain in the Class 2-A West Regional semi-finals.

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It marked the end of a long line of frustration by the Wranglers dating back to a second-place finish in Class 1-A back in 1997. The Wranglers celebrated a little too early that night on the floor of the Casper Events Center after an NBA range 3-pointer by senior Danny Maddock tied the game with the Cokeville Panthers at 55-55. As Shoshoni celebrated, a Cokeville guard broke loose on a Hail Mary pass for a layup that narrowly beat the game ending buzzer, giving the Panthers a 57-55 win and ending the season, and the varsity coaching career of legendary basketball coach Dick Cotton in the process.

The Wranglers were only in Class 1-A for four seasons, and qualified in 1996, before taking second in 1997. Otherwise, it’s an even longer dry spell in Class 2-A, dating back to the 1988 state championship game in a blowout win over now Class 3-A Mountain View in the finals on that same Events Center floor.

Since that 1988 title, the Wranglers had 14 different head coaches. Many years the season ended with a pigtail game loss, short of the regional tournament, one year the WHSAA allowed wrestlers who hadn’t qualified for state to play for the Wranglers in Riverton at the West Regional, to no one’s surprise, it didn’t help much.

The frustration came to an end under head coach Jonathan Wakelin when he led the Wranglers past Rocky Mountain in a slow defensive tilt. Before Friday night, the season always ended Friday or Saturday morning if they even qualified for the regional.

Another streak of sorts marks this year’s 2022 Class 2-A West Regional. For the second year, the Wyoming Indian Chiefs are staying home from the state tournament.

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Shoshoni opened the tournament on Thursday as the third seed from the Northwest and the Chiefs were the second from the Southwest. Just two weeks ago Wyoming Indian beat the Wranglers 74-70 in an entertaining game at Ethete.

The lack of a complete 20-21 schedule hampered Craig Ferris’ team all season, but the Chiefs were the hottest team in Class 2-A down the stretch, winning seven of eight games during a late rally in the season before dropping their final game to Big Piney at Ethete.

The Chiefs have a dozen state championship banners hanging in Alfred P. Redman Gym, six by the legendary coach Redman who the gym is named for, and six under Ferris. The Chiefs are an impressive 80-37 overall in state tournament play.

Thursday Shoshoni built a 16 point lead early in the fourth period, then handled a furious Wyoming Indian comeback that closed the game to four points before pulling away for the win.

The 2020-21 season was a disaster for the Chiefs with school closed due to the COVID 19 pandemic, and a shortened season ended for them in a loss to rival Wind River in a quad play.

In another first, Shoshoni won a post-season game over Wyoming Indian for the first time since the regional format was established 24 years ago, and in any post-season play until at least 1978.  Even in their ‘88 championship season, Shoshoni fell three times to the Chiefs, including a 64-59 loss in the third place game in 88 conference tournament. The Chiefs ended the season for the Wranglers the year before in overtime at Worland, and sent Shoshoni to a third place finish in 1990 in another overtime loss. Though the Wranglers placed third that year out of 11 teams in the tournament, the WHSAA elected to only allow two from the Five Rivers Conference to advance, while two of four teams qualified in the Northeast and Southwest the same year.

While it’s been a while since the Blue and Gold Wranglers have graced the Class 2-A floor in Casper, Shoshoni has the second most boys state basketball titles in Fremont County with seven.

The Wranglers won it all in 1952, 1953, 1962, ‘63 and ‘64, then again in ‘67 before that final title in 1988. Overall, Shoshoni sports an impressive 49-23 mark playing in the “Big Dance.”

In other record setting games, the St. Stephen’s Eagles and Wyoming Indian Chiefs met for the first time in post-season play on Friday morning in a loser out contest. The game was close for a while, but the Chiefs ran away with it in the final period.

On the girls’ side of the ledger, the Lady Chiefs dropped their first 2-A West Regional title game in six years on Saturday with a 58-44 loss to Rocky Mountain. In another first, the St. Stephen’s Lady Eagles put together two solid games, and qualified for the state tournament in Class 2-A for the first time in school history with a fourth place finish.

Jump across the county to Bob Carey Memorial Field House in Lander, and the Dubois boys made it 20 wins in a row in dominating the Class 1-A West regional. Only a pair of early losses when they were short-handed prevented an unblemished mark on the season.

The Rams under head coach Kyle Miller are on a collision course with the Upton Bobcats, and will most likely meet the dominating team from the East region next Saturday in the Class 1-A state title game.

It was a somber weekend for Rams fans as girls head coach Joe Slawiak lost a valiant battle with pancreatic cancer on the opening day of the tournament last Thursday.

Slawiak was a favorite of the kids in Dubois, a local guy off the Ram’s fourth place state finish in Class 2-A back in 2005. Slawiak, went off to college, and returned home to serve his community. He was an inspiration to the people of the High County, and to the girls and boys playing in this tight knit little mountain town.

Joe’s courage, humor in the face of life threatening adversity, and love of his players will go on for a long time in the hearts of the community.

Now it’s on to state, where anything can happen. The Wind River boys with their full on chaotic assault style of play ransacked the Class 2-A West, with only a challenge from Big Piney in the semi-finals to slow the onslaught.

Shoshoni has played in 14 state semi-final contests since their first appearance in 1941. The Wranglers finished second three times, third once, and earned four consolation titles.

Look for a deep run by both the Wranglers and Cougars this season, even though Tongue River and Big Horn are considered the favorites out of the east.

The last three games of a season, once you’ve made it to state, are the stuff of legend.

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