Non-starters for the Riverton Wolverines and Evanston Red Devils were introduced to the Casper Events Center crowd, prior to the starters. Here, the starting five wait on the bench, while their teammates receive some well-earned glory. Left to right: Seniors Taylor Siemers, Matt Johnson, Jemini Leckie, and Kade Lym, along with sophomore Alek Johnson. Photo by Heather Johnson
EVANSTON — The number-one ranked Sheridan Lady Broncs, the team that held that ranking and breezed through the end of the season and the 4A East regional tournament but fell to the Cheyenne East Lady Thunderbirds, after jumping out to a 10-2 lead in one of the semifinal games, could be considered a mild upset.
The same can be said for the Natrona County Fillies getting knocked into the third and fourth place game in the other by the Gillette Lady Camels. The biggest upset arguably was Star Valley winning the 3A girls championship over 28-0 Douglas, whose average margin of defeat was close to 35 points, as mentioned in the girls’ story in this section.
A case can also be made for the Riverton Wolverines handing the 22-2 Gillette Camels, ranked number one from the preseason until that semifinal game — their first loss to a Wyoming opponent. But the most impactful story from the boys’ bracket would have to be the history made by the Evanston Red Devils in winning their second consecutive title.
Yes, back-to-back championships have been won. The Camels had multiples in the 1990s, and Natrona County won two in a row as recently as 2009 and 2010. But there’s a major difference regarding to Evanston. In the history of the 4A, formerly known as Class AA, and Class A, prior to that — we’re talking large schools, and in that large school classification, no school on the smaller side, like a Riverton, Green River, Sheridan or Evanston — those in the modern era, with far less than 1,000 enrolled students, consecutive titles have never been won.
Had the Wolverines defeated the Red Devils, that win would have had historical significance, as well. Riverton has never won a basketball state title, dating back to 1918, and last played in the championship game in 1983. A bit more research may verify that two of the “small” big schools have never faced off for the 4A crown, or at least the occasions would be rare.
As a team ranked fourth in the WyoPreps.com Coaches and Media poll for most of the year, and one without a stellar record, as in single digits in the loss column, coupled with a first-year head coach, the only believers in the Red Devils’ chances to repeat may have been the Red Devils themselves, the team and coaching staff, and perhaps some of their true-blue fan base.
Evanston’s first order of business was their first round match-up with the third-ranked Plainsmen of Laramie. After Evanston had defeated Cheyenne East and Cheyenne South to begin their season, the Plainsmen won the first of two neutral site contests over a depleted Red Devils squad, 49–38.
Coach Roy Barker has described the early January tournament in Riverton as a section of the season where the Red Devils struggled. The Plainsmen rode past an intact Red Devils team, this time by 16 points, 44-28. Evanston also lost to Sheridan, who did not qualify for the state tournament, as the Broncs hung 65 on the Red Devils, in a 19 point win.
After an expected win over 2A Thermopolis, Evanston allowed the eventual 3A state Champion Star Valley Braves, a rival, along with being a quality team, to win in Evanston, after the Red Devils had picked up in overtime win over the Braves in Afton a couple of weeks prior. If the team, though, had begun to second-guess their identity, it was not apparent and the Red Devils did go on a four game win streak, including three to start conference play.
Maybe it’s a matter of peaking, jelling or just simply playing your best basketball at the end of the year. The game with the Plainsmen was a seesaw battle, and saw both teams go on many runs, though neither could pull away. Evanston trailed 16-11 when the first quarter buzzer sounded, then came out swinging in the second quarter, maybe the Red Devils’ worst eight minute quadrant in more games than any other this season. But in the second quarter, behind balanced scoring, the Red Devils scored 17, limiting Laramie to a dozen.
It was all knotted up at 28 at the half. In the third quarter, the Plainsmen repaid the favor, scoring 17 to Evanston’s 14, to lead 45-42 heading into the fourth quarter. Nothing was decided in the 32 minutes of regulation, with the teams tied at 54.
The Red Devils did not score from the field in overtime, but connected on 10 of 14 free throws. Perhaps more unusual was the Plainsmen not scoring a single point in the four extra minutes.
Just five Red Devils scored, with Matt Johnson having game-high honors with 22, Jemini Leckie overachieving with 16 and Kade Lym adding 10, with seven each from Alek Johnson and Taylor Seimers.
Tyler Loose got loose for 19, with a dozen from Abel Casas and Sam Feldman for Laramie. There were 10 ties and 10 lead changes, and it went to an extra period, but Evanston had won the all-important first round game.
The Red Devils then faced a hot Kelly Walsh team in the semifinal, a team that had defeated both the Red Devils and the Wolverines for the 4A West Regional title in Green River on the first weekend in March. Evanston defeated the Trojans by an average of a dozen during the conference season.
The Red Devils led 11-7 at the end of the first quarter, but the teams played even in the second, with Evanston maintaining the lead of four, 23-19.
Five ties and three lead changes highlighted this contest, including 29 apiece at the end of three and a 43-43 tie at the end of regulation. Consecutive overtime games?
Part of the madness, but the Red Devils would not be denied and Matt Johnson again came through with late game heroics, scoring all of Evanston’s seven while he and his teammates held the Trojans to five.
Johnson’s seven included the game-winning double drive and double-clutch banking layup, which bounced around the rim lightly, before finding its way home right before the time expired in overtime.
The defending state champion Red Devils moved into the 4A state championship against a Riverton team they had split with during the conference season. Riverton was ranked second most of the year, and had done what no Wyoming team had been able to do — knock the Gillette Camels out of title contention..
While this title tilt had some back-and-forth, with one tie and one lead change, the Wolverines fought back to keep the game within striking distance, though Evanston led most of the game, after trailing 9-11 in the first quarter. The Red Devils led 23-19 at the break.
Jemini Leckie connected for 15 points through three quarters to lead all scorers, and was the major contributor in holding Riverton’s prolific Xavier Webb, the conference scoring co-leader with Evanston’s Matt Johnson, at 16.3 per game, through three quarters. Webb’s barrage of deep-threes late in the game had been the daggers to the Camels’ state championship aspirations. He would hit a pair against Evanston in the fourth quarter to finish with 11, but it was point guard Kade Salisbury, after just two in the first quarter, who was solid through the last three, scoring 18 to finish with 20. Seth Quayle got into foul trouble, ending with four free throws. Leckie scored 48 points in the state tournament, with 19 against the Wolverines, to Johnson’s 52, in three state games, with Kade Lym limited by ankle injury, especially in the final game.
The two-time state champions were honored with a police and fire truck escort into town, deboarded the buses to climb aboard the fire engines for a victory parade through Evanston on Sunday, with a celebration rally that included the Lady Red Devils, the cheerleaders, and the Classics.
There’s more to the story, but we’re long out of time. Check an upcoming issue for more on the Devils’ season.