“I think every snowplow driver must have been an athlete,” Lander activities director Serol Stauffenberg said, “They’ve gone above and beyond, they could have just dropped the gate and called it good.”
Wyoming Indian athletic director Keith Bauder was more direct, “A big tip of the hat to WYDOT,” he said.
Snowplow drivers are the lead dogs in a vast group of individuals who came together beginning early Monday morning to get the 1A/2A West tournaments ready for the blizzard rolling into Fremont County and across the Cowboy State beginning Tuesday night.
The WHSAA held meetings on Monday to discuss options in moving or condensing not only the tournaments in Riverton and Lander but the east version of these venues in Sundance and Torrington.
Options discussed included starting the tournaments on Tuesday or condensing them into a two-day format with opening round and semi-final games played on Friday with qualifying and championship games on Saturday.
In the end, it proved too much for teams to make last-minute accommodations and for officials to drop everything at work to drive to the various sites. The tournaments will go on as previously planned, if local travel permits.
Inventiveness and cooperation were the hallmarks of preparations for teams to compete in Riverton and Lander.
No teams face the challenges that are commonplace for Saratoga, Encampment, and Little Snake River.
Their only access to the rest of the state is Wyoming’s most unreliable, yet heavily used highway Interstate 80.
“I80 was closed some last week,” Saratoga activities director Greg Bartlett said, “It closed hard on Saturday, then closed both ways some on Sunday, then closed both ways again on Monday.”
The options of taking US Highway 30 from Walcott to Bosler, then across to Interstate 25 south of Wheatland were also closed, as were highway 487 from Medicine Bow to Casper, and US Highway 287 North from Rawlins to Muddy Gap.
The solution came with the snowplow drivers of the Wyoming Highway Department.
“Our transportation director called the state people in Cheyenne,” Bartlett said. “We joined with Encampment, and put our boys and girls team on one bus, then followed plows north from Rawlins. We followed one plow almost to Bairoil, then another plow came up and took us to Muddy Gap.
North of Muddy Gap to Sweetwater Station the roads were good, then they met two more plows on Beaver Rim for the final run to Riverton.
Bartlett drove a Saratoga suburban as did the Panther wrestling team in two more suburbans.
The wrestlers headed on to Casper on Monday, spending four nights in the Oil City until the state tournament begins on Friday.
“We couldn’t find a place for our wrestlers to practice, but the Ford Wyoming Center opened from 4 to 8 for kids from all the teams to practice,” Bartlett said.
Getting to the tournament is only half the battle, the other considerations are cost, time away from the classroom, and practice time to keep the teams fresh.
Saratoga had reservations in Lander for Thursday and Friday but found accommodations at the Comfort Inn in Riverton for Monday through Wednesday.
Practice was another issue. Shoshoni activities director Max Mills opened the gym to Saratoga for practices on Monday and Tuesday, and Wind River activities director Joe Robison moved some PE classes so the Panthers could practice at Pavillion on Wednesday if roads permit the short drive northwest of Riverton.
Bauder was contacted by teams and gyms at Wyoming Indian were open for anyone who needed practice time. The Ft. Washakie gym was made available as well.
Stauffenberg contacted WHSAA director Ron Laird and asked that the ban on practicing at tournament sites be lifted for the Bob Carey Memorial Field House and it is also available for teams staying a few extra days before the tournaments.
“Every school up here is as nice as could be,” Bartlett said.
The lost class time issue was solved with the help of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago.
The Saratoga team brought their Chromebooks with them and logged onto the Internet to do assignments uploaded by the Saratoga High School teachers in morning study sessions.
The sophomore English students read John Steinbeck’s classic, “Of Mice and Men” as part of their Tuesday morning study session.
Saratoga head boys’ basketball coach Jason Williams is a history and government teacher, and he helped the boys’ and girls’ teams during the study session.
Bartlett and his wife, head girls coach Heather Bartlett have a ranch near Pavillion operated by their son Gage, who is also a tournament official.
The Bartlett’s were at Smith’s in Riverton on Tuesday morning buying groceries to prepare a meal of lasagna for the teams in the kitchen at their ranch.
Other teams made it to Lander Monday night including Little Snake River and Farson-Eden.
Lyman was scheduled to play Lander in a Class 3-A quad game Tuesday, a game that had already been rescheduled once, but South Pass was closed on Tuesday, and would likely be socked in later with the approaching storm stranding the Eagles in Lander.
It wasn’t just basketball and wrestling teams that were affected, the state Nordic Skiing championships are this weekend in Jackson, and county speech teams were headed for the district competition in Rock Springs.
Stauffenberg arranged for a couple of snowplows to open South Pass and US Highway 20/26 for his wrestling and speech teams, and then spread the word to other activities directors.
“WYDOT is running a South Pass shuttle for us,” Stauffenberg said.
On Tuesday, Riverton athletic director Reggie Miller sent a Riverton bus to Lander, where they picked up the Tiger speech team, since Lander was out of drivers, and followed a snowplow over South Pass with both schools riding the same Bluebird bus.
At 10 am on Tuesday, Lander, Wyoming Indian, Shoshoni, Wind River, and Dubois wrestling teams met a snowplow at Shoshoni. Although the highway was opened shortly before 10, the teams followed the plow since the roads were still in bad shape.
Officials have arrived days in advance as well. With crew chief Eric Quinney of Evanston arriving Monday evening in Lander, and Lane Buchanan, crew chief from Laramie driving to Cheyenne, then to Casper, and across to Riverton in advance of the tournament.
None of this is free, the extra days for the Wolverine speech and wrestling teams will cost District 25 about $4,000. In Saratoga, the booster club agreed to fund part of the extra cost of getting the Panthers to Fremont County.
Every bus on the road and transportation department in the state is connected via a statewide radio network and they have a long and meritorious history of helping each other with kids on the road.
“We’ll be frustrated if it doesn’t happen with the effort the carbon county teams made to get here,” Bartlett said.
Adapt, improvise, and overcome is a Marine Corps motto, but it fits when it comes to beating a winter storm so the teenagers of the state can participate, but it can be wearying.
“A couple of years ago we were dealing with COVID and hoped we never had to deal with something like this again,” Mills said. “And here we are.”