December 1981 marked the end of one era and the beginning of another at Riverton High School. Wolverine senior Lars Flanagan won the opening tip against the Thermopolis Bobcats on a cold Friday Night in Fremont County and history was made with the first boys’ game at what many Riverton fans still refer to as the “new gym.”
For the next two seasons, the Wolverines never lost a regular season home game on that floor. In their second year at the new gym, they advanced to the Class 4-A state championship game before losing to a talented Cheyenne Central team 63-53.
The Lady Wolverines started a year later with the greatest three-sport run in school history, winning state championships in volleyball, basketball, and track.
The girls were 23-1 in 1983 winning the title by four points over Natrona County and did even better that fall and the following spring with a perfect 23-0 record, edging Sheridan 40-38 in the final game of the season at the Casper Events Center.
Perhaps the most impressive performance for a Riverton team on their home court were back-to-back state volleyball championships played at home. The 1982 and 83 Lady Wolverines dominated the sport, and the tournament was held in Riverton for the early half of the 1980s.
The state wrestling tournament also brought thousands of fans to Riverton at the same time.
The gym and the events were the result of many people working behind the scenes to bring these venues to Fremont County, and none was more involved than the late Bill Strannigan, Riverton Activities Director.
It started with Riverton hosting the regional boys’ basketball tournament in 1982.
“It was the nicest gym around, it was the biggest, and we packed it sometimes,” Cody Activities Director, and guard on the 1983 Wolverine basketball team, Tony Hult said. “We had good teams and good crowds. I remember how hot it was a regionals, playing Rock Springs in the semis. Being centrally located a lot of people were able to come, Strannigan was so good, he ran a good tournament.”
Those Riverton boys’ teams under head coach Mike Harris were a “cradle of coaches” across Wyoming, with Flanagan, Hult, Pat Ibach, Ricky Blackburn, and Steve Barlow all coaching basketball and some becoming activities directors.
The move from the old high school, to the new one, wasn’t done in one move. For the first year, science and math classes were held at the new building, with buses running all day to ferry students between the two. All the other classes remained at the venerable brick landmark just south of Tonkin Stadium. Until the present Riverton pool was constructed, PE classes were bused to the old swimming pool at what became known for a while as the Sixth Grade building.
The old gym served Riverton well, nestled on the high school campus near the top of the hill on West Main Street. Change came in 1980 with the construction of a new high school at the present location on West Sunset between Major Avenue and College View Drive.
The new gym was a paradox for both players and coaches. They enjoyed the new locker rooms, the state-of-the-art facilities, and the expanded floor space, but they missed the floor and the closeness of the home crowd from the old gym.
“We had a great floor because of the size. It was very close, we had a definite home-court advantage,” retired Riverton head boys basketball coach Mike Harris said. “The band sat right behind the visitor’s bench. They couldn’t hear in a timeout with the band playing.”
Harris’s players agreed the old parquet floor was superb, and the fans packing the seats to the west and the stage on the east side created a festive atmosphere. They even lined the baselines with folding chairs at times.
While the floor was prized, the locker rooms weren’t so great.
“Walking down to the old locker rooms, all concrete, they were like bomb barracks,” St. Stephen’s head girls coach Ricky Blackburn said.
One year, Wyoming head coach Jim Brandenburg brought the Cowboys to the old gym for an exhibition game.
As the Cowboys looked for their locker room Brandenburg asked Harris, “Mike, what is that?”
“That’s your dressing room,” Harris said.
Brandenburg emerged after getting his team to the room and said, “One of my Black players said they didn’t have anything that bad in the ghetto.”
Locker rooms aside, the action was always hot at the old gym, especially when Lander came to town.
“I remember watching Riverton and lander playing in the old gym when Gordon Ferris was playing,” Blackburn said. “It was like the Cameron Crazies back in the day, with the Riverton kids right above the bench.”
A couple of years later, Riverton counselor and former head boys’ basketball coach Lars Flanagan was a junior at the free throw line in the old gym in a game against Lander.
“I was at the line and the other guys, and the officials were looking behind me, I turned around and saw a bunch of Riverton kids running across the floor to the Lander fans, there was a brawl in the stands,” Flanagan said. “When I was little, I remember going to games there when Mark White was playing.”
The location in the heart of town was a benefit too.
“The floor was great, the fans, the noise, all of it,” Central Wyoming College activities director and former Riverton boys coach Steve Barlow said. “But when you walked out of the gym, there was Tonkin Stadium right in front of you. How can you beat that?
While the nostalgia for the old gym runs deep, the spacious practice facilities on the new floor more than compensated.
“On Wednesday, church nights, we had to have a 6 a.m. practice to get all the teams floor time,” Harris said. “When we moved to the new gym we could practice sophomore, junior varsity, and varsity all at the same time.”
Gary Lee, Riverton girl’s coach concurred with Harris, “It was night and day,” Lee said. “The gym they built at the new high school was second to none. With boys’ and girls’ basketball, we had to have early, and late practice, and some teams still had to practice in the morning, but you could watch all three teams at the same time.”
Loading and unloading buses for away games or rival teams arriving was a factor as well.
“Travel logistics, just getting in and out of the gym was so much easier at the new gym,” Lee said.
The first state tournament for girls didn’t come until 1976, Riverton qualified in 1977, but didn’t place. That fall, practicing on the old floor, the Lady Wolverines won their first team title in any sport taking the 1977 state volleyball championship.
Big gyms were a rarity in Wyoming before the 1980s. Rock Springs had a huge facility, but big schools like Natrona County and Cheyenne Central played in tiny gyms by today’s standards.
“Bill Strannigan went to bat for Riverton to make it look the way it does today,” Flanagan said. “After 40 years it still holds up well, it’s better than any other gym in the state. When kids from other teams walk in for the first time they’re in awe.”
Even opposing players had opinions on the two gyms.
Bret Evans, a guard on the 1982 Class 4-A state championship team from Rawlins played in both facilities.
“The old gym had a smell, it was a good smell, it smelled like basketball to me,” Evans said. “It was a mix of old leather, gym finish, Cramergesic, and a little sweat. The floor was great.”
The new gym was good for Evans and the Outlaws as well. They lost to Rock Springs on Riverton’s floor in the west regional but came back a week later to beat the Tigers in Laramie for the state championship 32-30.
“The locker rooms weren’t so great,” Evans said.
The contrast between the two for kids moving from one gym to the other was stark.
“It was like walking out of a barn, and into a palace,” Blackburn said.
One aspect players noted was the width of the new gym during practices.
“I hated Wednesday because we had to run sweet 16s,” Pat Ibach said.
Ibach too liked the old floor better.
“The floor at the old high school was phenomenal. As a little kid, I went in there for Christmas practice, my dad was assisting Bill Strannigan. The floor was buckled from a leak, and almost as high as the stage. The floor always gave you true bounces, the crowds were right on top of you.”
When the 1983 Wolverine made the state championship it was the first Class 4-A title played at the Events Center and the first game televised statewide on KTWO.
It was playing in the new gym that prepared Riverton for the exposure.
“We had such good crowds, we had a really good student crowd, of course when you’re winning, people like to see you play,” Ibach said.
The new gym remains an icon across western Wyoming.
For two decades the Class 2-A Regional basketball championships are hosted in Riverton, bringing untold millions of dollars to the local economy.
The Ron Thon wrestling tournament is the largest in Wyoming, and on occasion, Class 4-A regional, volleyball, basketball, and wrestling are held in Wolverine gym.
The benefits to the community have far outweighed the initial cost of the bond issued to build it.
The state continues to pressure Fremont County School District 25 to demolish the old high school building and with it the gym, which was converted into the best wrestling venue in the state a few years ago, but it still stands for now.