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All I want for Christmas — Red Devils edition

Posted: Monday, Dec 24th, 2012

Evanston standout Brayton Sanders pins an opponent during a recent match. HERALD PHOTO/Mark Madia

All I want for Christmas? It’s pretty simple, really. To not have to listen to Mariah Carey sing about all SHE wants for Christmas. Okay, I actually kind of like that one, and I must admit, I’d much rather hear her sing about it than Nicki Minaj. But I’ll stick with the classic Karen Carpenter, thank you very much.

It’s what? A sports column? Very well, then. All I want for Christmas, with a sports twist. It seems logical to begin with my favorite team. That’s where you’d start, correct? The Utah Jazz? Love ‘em, but no, not my absolute favorite. The Pittsburgh Steelers? Ode to the Black ‘n’ Gold? Yeah, quite fond of them, too. I hope they play as they’re capable, and by the time you read this issue, Pittsburgh has defeated the AFC North Conference rival Bengals, because a loss pretty much assures the Steelers of not even a wild card shot at post-season play.

The Wyoming Cowboys and Cowgirls? Getting warmer — more on them in a bit. No, it’s the Evanston Red Devils and Lady Red Devils. 

For Christmas, I’d like to see the Red Devils in the thick of things, come March Madness, with a legitimate shot to defend their state championship. And I believe they will indeed be there. It’s a rarity, all right, the repeat, especially for a small “large” school like Evanston. Natrona County last pulled it off in 2009 and 2010, but you have to go back to 1999 and 2000 for the last time the feat was accomplished prior to that. And by whom? Yeah, the Gillette Camels — and those two programs are not exactly of the small variety.

The last time a smaller school in the largest classification, like an Evanston, Green River or Sheridan, accomplished back-to-back basketball titles? Try never. That’s how special it is and would be. Right now, the Gillette Camels are the team to beat, storming through their Wyoming competition, with nary a close game. Okay, the fifth-ranked Mustangs were within a dozen in the “Orange Dungeon,” on Friday, Dec. 21, but the Camels have defeated all in-state comers with relative ease.

Evanston went toe-to-toe with the Camels for a quarter with six ties and a 14-12 lead with one complete, appearing to be another epic battle, like the last three, but once Matt Johnson had to sit, due to foul trouble, the Camels went on runs. But, it’s early, and it doesn’t matter so much how you’re playing in December and January, but rather in that month of madness.

And I just foresee Kade Lym and Jemini Leckie knocking down those threes when the ball is kicked back out, after attacking in the paint. The shots were just not falling as they ordinarily do, and will. And Santa? Keep Matt Johnson free from foul trouble, won’t you?

For the Lady Red Devils? To get off the schneid and play to their true potential and ability. They certainly have the coaching in place, and the athleticism. Maybe even some size, for a change. They simply have to shoot better, as elementary as that may sound.

And you know what? I think Santa will grant this one, close after his big night around the world. They’ll face a struggling Jackson Lady Broncs team in the gorgeous resort town on Saturday, Dec. 29. Jackson has yet to win in eight tries, though they’ve been close. But I believe it starts for Evanston on “the night before Jackson” — did you like that? Thanks, I’m here all week.

Yes, I think the Lady Red Devils begin the season turnaround on Friday night, Dec. 28, in Afton, against Star Valley. The Lady Braves are ranked No. 2 in Class 3A, despite a so-so 3-3 record. These teams have had their share of dandies, too. 

For Red Devils wrestling? More kids out for the sport, for crying out loud! Yeah, it’s a tough sport to compete in — to me, the toughest. While I realize school enrollment numbers have dipped substantially since the heydays of 60-some wrestlers donning the Blue and Scarlet, to be as competitive as Evanston has been in 4A Wrestling, given their limited rosters in the past decade or so, is commendable.

When you consider what assistant coach Garth Wagstaff pointed out in a recent discussion, that competition like the Camels, who have won the state crown for 10 years running, will have the top-two ranked wrestlers, statewide, in a particular weight class, or two, or three, as teammates, is it any wonder why the Camels have been so dominant?

The play on words, “You’re only as good as your practice squad makes you,” speaks volumes as to why Gillette wrestling is so successful. They can fill out all 14 weight classes, all right, with upperclassmen, for the most part, and never have to worry about forfeiting away six points in a dual because of not having a wrestler in a certain weight class. What, never? Well, hardly ever. Yeah, I’m feeling you, Captain of the Pinafore.

The Red Devils will never match those kinds of participation numbers, but I’ll bet there are kids who roam the halls at EHS who could help make Red Devils wrestling more competitive — immensely more. While toiling through the first couple of weeks of conditioning for any sport may not make it appear so, you know what countless athletes of the past have told me? The common thread they speak of is how fast their high school athletic careers zip by, and how they wish they would have spent more time focused on the being the best they could possibly be, striving to reach personal goals which, in turn, are reflected by success as a team.

So if you’ve thought about being a Red Devils wrestler — you can hear it coming, can’t you, the Nike reference? Yes, just do it! And yes, like most sports in the Red Devils realm, if you have the talent, the drive, the heart and desire, the wrestling coaching staff will get you there.

Sure, being comprised of past state champions and college wrestlers is fantastic, but more importantly, these coaches, like so many others within our district, bleed Red Devils red. They have found a way to make it back home, often taking what, on the outside, may look like a step down or backwards, from an opportunity to coach elsewhere. But it runs deeper for these coaches, who desire to instill in the hometown kids they coach the lessons they learned, which played such a huge role in shaping the men and women they’ve become. They want to give back what they received, to pay it forward. 

And that dynamic could be the subject of a column or story of its own. I dare say, you will not find that special and unique status anywhere else, not to the degree it naturally plays out at Evanston High School. Just look at all the former Red Devils athletes who now guide the youth at their alma mater. It’s amazing to me, and in my opinion, that “ownership-leadership,” from the top, of all things Red Devils, plays no small part in the caliber of our student athletes and the performances they turn in, given the disadvantages faced, the odds we must buck, when compared to much of the competition Evanston battles, with all the advantages you can imagine. But I digress.

Back to wrestling and participation at EHS. The same applies to football, and really, any other sport. Most coaches are dedicated to their craft, to their sport of choice, and to the school where they are gainfully employed — but not to the level of most of our coaches.

Take coach Larry Wagstaff who, in addition to his passion and year-round promotion and support of Red Devils wrestling, has also been an assistant football coach since I was in high school, and that extends back to the days when Wild Cherry topped the pop charts, begging for the white boy to become increasingly more funky in his musical stylings.

There’s material aplenty for another rip-off of a 70s sit-com, titled, “Welcome Back, Wagstaff.” I know the nickname “Larry Legend” has already been bestowed upon the hick from French Lick, but Wagstaff is just that, a legend, one of the longest tenured coaches you’ll find. But he won’t be a fixture in the wrestling room forever. Like Kay Fackrell before him, there will come a time when the torch will be passed, but because of the immeasurable influence coaches like Fackrell and Wagstaff have had on countless young men and women, their legacies will continue, and their programs will continue to flourish and thrive, and be in good hands, due to their extreme dedication. 

So, all I want for Christmas for the sporting and other extracurricular offerings at Evanston High School is increased participation. Give it your all, and live without regrets of what might have been. You’re in an enviable position to learn from some of the very best at what they do. Don’t squander the opportunity. The vast majority of high school athletes, even the standouts, will not be involved in anything more than college intramurals, city leagues and pick-up games, once they graduate.

There will be plenty of time to pursue your mastery of Call of Duty: Black Ops II, down the road. And it’s evident it CAN happen at EHS. Volleyball coach Tera Lawlar has tapped into the magic of creating excitement and infectious enthusiasm for her passion, to witness steadily rising numbers in camp participation and female athletes desiring to be contributors to Red Devils volleyball. 

For the swimming and diving Red Devils, all I want for Christmas is, well, of course, in the future, more kids taking part. But for this year? To carry forward with the house of momentum that Jason Crompton built. Crompton personifies the word “athlete” to me. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: It’s difficult for me to imagine marveling at anyone’s achievements more than I do Crompton’s. He embodies that rare breed of internal fire, heart and determination, which just separate him, in dramatic fashion, from most anyone, in any sport. He was revered by his athletes because of the examples he set, and the manner in which he lives his life. 

For first-year head coach Joe DeLong, it’s difficult to replace, or rather take over for, someone like Jason, but DeLong has gained a great deal from his involvement with not only Crompton, but Casey Boyle, Pam Christensen, and the dean of swimming, Rich Havig.

DeLong is his own man, has a former mentor in Boyle to lean on and learn from, and you can’t go wrong with Kate O’Rourke Schmidt adding her time, talents and devotion. DeLong is primed, poised and passionate, which should translate into more underdog Red Devils qualifying for state, sustaining the previously-mentioned momentum of the program. You could say coach Joe is in it for DeLong haul. Well, you could, but someone might slap you.

So, if you’re still with me, Santa, I have just a few more, and I’ll try not to be so verbose.

For the Wyoming Cowboys and Cowgirls? Good things are happening at UW, and all I want for Christmas is for the continued success of all teams brown and gold. 

I was a fan of Larry Shyatt during his first stint as a head coach, and while I understand the apprehension many fans felt about his subsequent rehire, due to his unexpected departure, my respect and admiration for Shyatt have done nothing but increase.

Shyatt is the right man for the job, and exactly what the ‘Pokes’ hoops program needed. Tradition means something to him, and I hope a friend was right, believing he’ll be here until he retires. He epitomizes “coach,” and upholds the standards which all coaches should aspire to achieve. Want a meaningful endorsement of coach Shyatt from someone whose opinion carries weight? Ask former coach Bubba O’Neill sometime.

The Pokes have tied the best start in Cowboy Basketball history, ever, with their 12th win. Where again did The Sporting News have Wyoming ranked in the Mountain West in the preseason? I’m not gloating, because parts of the Mountain West Conference schedule will be brutal — New Mexico, San Diego St. and UNLV? — but I think something special is a-brewing on the high plains of Laramie. Wyoming is receiving enough votes to land in the top 30 in college basketball polls, and their school record-tying 12th consecutive wins dates back to the 1950-51 season. Keep it rolling next year, Pokes, beginning with SMU in Dallas on Jan. 2.

I kind of felt bad for Taran Brown, the former Gillette Camel, whose UC Santa Barbara Gauchos were held to 40 points and swept by the Cowboys in a home and home this season — two of their dozen wins. Brown wanted to play well in his home state, and I always root for any Wyoming kid to excel, except against Wyoming. There is that caveat. 

But then I remembered that the six-foot, eight-inch, silky-smooth talent and Milward Simpson award-nominee was the primary reason Evanston didn’t have that rare opportunity I mentioned, way back, in the beginning of this rambling. If Brown hadn’t been so good, playing for Gillette, Evanston could have very well have been the only small 4A school to win back-to-back titles, gunning for the trifecta this season. He cost us. So, yeah, I got past it. 

Taran Brown was the best Wyoming high school basketball player since James Johnson of Cheyenne East. Watching him in high school, you could envision a legitimate shot at an NBA career, where Johnson continues to “go to work,” now for the Sacramento Kings. Good work, if you can get it.

Johnson was the best since Jaycee Carroll of Evanston. I could go back with best since Laramie’s Marcus Bailey, who was the best since Demetrius Drew of Central. But bottom line, Jaycee Carroll was the best Wyoming high school basketball product, ever. Period. At least that I’ve seen. All I want for Christmas, but I’ll wait ‘til next year for this one — give Jaycee Carroll a legitimate shot at the NBA. He’s not only proven, but excelled, defying odds at every level. His work ethic is incredible, and you can’t measure heart. 

Rocky Balboa: “Yeah, Mick, Jaycee Carroll’s got heart, but he ain’t got no NBA locker.” That may have been slightly paraphrased.

Speaking of professional athletes from Evanston, all I want for Christmas for Brady Poppinga is a ton of gridiron success while in Dallas. So much success, that a team like, oh I don’t know...say, the Pittsburgh Steelers, offer him a lucrative contract. Wherever Brady has played has become my second favorite NFL team, by default, but this one is tough. It’d be like Jaycee finally getting his opportunity, but with the Lakers. Sorry, Dustin Matthews. No, not really. I’m not. But I’ll always cheer for, and genuinely wish for nothing but the best for any former Red Devil.

Back to the Cowboys I do love.

I want and wish for ‘Pokes’ post-season play, but I don’t want to seem too greedy, with all I want for Christmas in sports. Besides, I believe they’ll earn it. 

The Cowgirls are exciting — yes, Erin Kirby and her volleyball teammates, too, but I’m talking about Joe Legerski’s team, another outstanding ambassador for the Cowboy State and the university, who understands and lives his life entrenched in Wyoming values. A former Rock Springs Tiger, he hasn’t forgotten or ever lost sight of where he’s from. He understands it. He gets it, and his Cowgirls are 9-2. The wrestling program is nationally-ranked. All those wonderful factors put UW and Wyoming on the map. They enhance recruiting efforts for all sports, I believe.

I’ll also hold off on my wish to be in the one percent to get the dome over Kay Fackrell Stadium done, and a big-time boom for the Kemmerer area, so Evanston once again, has a rival. We can manage without both, for a while, I reckon.

My wish for Herald readers to select some all-time teams from Evanston High School — I’ll keep that active, and close with my final, all I want for Christmas is a Red Devils Hall of Fame, but I hear plans are under way, and I hope “they” know I’ll do anything I can to assist. We deserve one. It’s overdue. It’s been earned, many times over.

Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas!

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