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‘March Madness’ prep school-style, gets under way

Posted: Friday, Mar 8th, 2013

Matt Johnson fully extends to snare a rebound. The senior ended up as the 4A West Conference's leading scorer going into postseason play, surpassing Riverton's Xavier Webb, with a 16.7 points per game average. Photo by Heather Gifford

NOTE: The Evanston Red Devils boys basketball team won their game against Laramie on Thursday, March 7. Way to go, Devils!

CASPER — Wyoming high school basketball could be viewed as having four separate seasons, though not every team is allowed the opportunity to compete in the fourth and final. All teams play a pre-season schedule, move into a conference season, begin anew with a regional tournament and, for those who qualify, the state tournament serves as the finale where, again, the slates are wiped clean.

Anything can happen, which is a big part of the allure, excitement and fun that the Equality State’s prep versions of March Madness treat fans to annually, usually accompanied by signs of winter giving way to spring. Nary a tournament goes by without at least a mild upset or two, and always with the additional, unexpected surprises, such as a little-known player exploding for a career-high during the season’s final hurrah, on its grandest stage.

Evanston is part of an elite 33 percent of the 12 4A schools, along with Rock Springs, Gillette and Laramie, whose boys and girls teams will compete in the season-ending state tournament. Sheridan, Green River, Cheyenne East, Natrona County, Riverton, Casper Kelly Walsh, Cheyenne South and Cheyenne Central are represented by one or the other. The 2013 culminating event marks the first time since Cheyenne South began competing at the 4A level, in 2010-2011, that no Wyoming 4A school will be shut out.

The South Bison, coached by former Red Devils head basketball coach Jim Shaffer, competed in the 3A classification in their first year of existence. Their strong finish may be one of the bigger surprise stories, so far, of the 2012-2013 campaign. Entering the 4A East Conference regional tournament, tied with Cheyenne East as the conference cellar-dweller and a five-seed, but emerging as a three-seed, is validation of the anything-can-happen magic and madness that March brings.

4A girls state tournament

Parity, among the better teams, when considering the classification as a whole, is more the rule than the exception. There may be a clear-cut favorite or two year to year but, usually, there are a handful of teams with a legitimate shot to win it all. 

The Cheyenne Central Lady Indians and their fan base may feel a bit jilted and jaded, and who can blame them? The 4A East Conference was, far and away, the more dominant of the two. In the 4A West, the NC Fillies were the only team with an overall winning record, until Rock Springs was able to first achieve a .500 record, with their wins equaling their losses, and then slightly surpass it, toward the end of the year.

Natrona County was a fixture in the WyoPreps.com Coaches and Media poll top five, with the other four representatives being member schools from the east side of the state. And, until the end of the season, five of the six 4A East teams, every team except Cheyenne South, including Cheyenne Central, had winning overall records. Central made some appearances in the top five. The Lady Indians also defeated both Evanston and Green River twice, with a close victory, and one of the “convincing win” varieties. The Lady Red Devils and Lady Wolves are attending state, and legitimately earned their berths, with the current system in place, but it’s a pretty safe bet Cheyenne Central would have qualified, had the Lady Indians been a member of the 4A West. But sometimes that’s just the way the ball bounces.

Paraphrasing a two-part question posed to Lady Red Devils head coach, Scott Ehlers — “Does this season of girls’ 4A hoops have more, not just good, but exceptionally good, teams, as you can recall? Is this the toughest the largest classification of girls basketball has ever been?” The coach responded with a resounding, “Without a doubt.”

Natrona County, Cheyenne East and Sheridan have all been ranked number-one, been upended to lose the top spot, by one of the others, and regained it, in cases. If the perennial powerhouse, the Lady Camels of Gillette, were not ranked number-one, at some point during the season they were right on the cusp, very close, or at least in the mix of dethroning a top-ranked team.  

Who will be playing their best basketball in the final three days of the season? The team that gets hot, at just the right time, will win the whole thing. And if it’s not one of the four discussed above, it will truly be a shocker but, again, that’s why the games are played, and anything can happen. 

There are a number of intriguing side stories on the girls’ side of the ledger — dispelling the rumor that the best free-throw shooter in the 4A, East’s Elissia Johnson, shoots better at the line than her NBA brother, James, of the Sacramento Kings. At 76 percent, indeed she does, but the two are not brother and sister. Elissia is the daughter of Savalious “Sly” Johnson — no, not the acclaimed blues and soul singer, but the former Wyoming Cowboys hoopster. 

The ongoing story is NC’s Kaylee Johnson — where will she play collegiately? Will she be considered among, if not the, very best female basketball player ever to hail from the Cowboy State?

Will future Wyoming Cowgirl Hailey Ligocki, of Sheridan, cap a four-year Lady Broncs varsity career with a state title?

Stay tuned, and relish the madness.

4A boys state tournament

The burning question on the minds of most fans would have to be, “Do any of the other seven teams have what it takes to give the top-ranked Gillette Camels a run for their money, let alone knock them off?  

Campbell County was last season’s state runner-up, and they’re just about always in the mix, including being this year’s preseason favorite, and the team has never relinquished that top spot. They have not lost to a Wyoming opponent, with wins by 20 to 30 points, and more, often the end result.

A five-point, 65-70 setback to Scottsbluff, Neb., in their second game of the season, served as a wake-up call. The only other loss was deemed kind of a fluke, to the 17-6 Davis Darts of Utah’s 5A division. Along the way, big schools from Rapid City, Las Vegas and Portland were among the Camels’ victims.

The illustrious 30-year coaching career of the Camels’ head coach, the always-dapper Michael Curry, is a story in and of itself. With this season’s wins added in, Curry reached the milestone of 600 career wins. Couple the 604 Ws against just 150 losses, going into the 2013 state tourney, and that’s a win percentage of .800-plus. Add in 12 state crowns in those 30 seasons, plus a number of championship game appearances, and an appreciation for the Camels’ accomplishments, under Curry’s watch, is a foregone conclusion. Or, divide the 600 wins by the 30 seasons. The quick-math quotient? An average of 20 wins per season, also duly impressive. 

Of the contenders, the defending 4A state champion Evanston Red Devils wouldn’t have to attempt to accomplish the feat until the title game, a repeat of last season’s title tilt, but will have to get past a Laramie team that has defeated the Red Devils twice in the 2012-2013 season.

Next to Gillette, the upstart Kelly Walsh Trojans may be the hottest team in Wyoming’s largest division. If they can outlast Cheyenne Central and the Evanston - Laramie winner, the Trojans would be riding some major momentum. But will it be enough?

The second-ranked Wolverines of Riverton appear to have the personnel to best match up with Gillette, and it’s doubtful they will get blown out of the gym by Gillette, to the extent they did in an early-season Flaming Gorge Classic showdown, between the top two 4A squads, with the Wolverines the recipient of an 83-54 hump-thump, in mid-December. Riverton, if they defeat Cheyenne South, would have their shot at redemption in the semifinals, and even the Rock Springs Tigers, a major underdog, have a chance, albeit slight, in the opening round.

It’s why we play the games.

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