SHERIDAN — It’s uncommon that a fan base sits so far from its team.
Wyoming is the state’s only four-year university, and for that reason holds its only major college athletics teams, which, for Pokes fans at times can seem a world away, especially in Sheridan. That’s why Wednesday night’s Cowboy Joe Club event can be viewed as more than what it is, a back-patting booster club gathering, and instead for the storylines it carries these days from Laramie up to northern Wyoming.
“All I have to say is ‘Kayla Woodward.’ Thank you,’” Cowgirls basketball coach Joe Legerski said, jokingly walking away to a burst of laughter and applause back toward his table, where Kayla’s parents Pam and Gene Woodward sat at the Holiday Inn convention center Wednesday evening.
“Kayla makes my life easy,” Legerski said, retaking the floor in front of about 70 folks at the spring Cowboy Joe Club meet and greet. “I became a better coach when I recruited Kayla.”
Legerski admitted this was the first time he’d been to Sheridan since his roster swelled with now four players from Sheridan County, strengthening a pipeline the likes of which Wyoming may have never seen.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be able to have players in this state,” Legerski said. “I couldn’t agree more with coach Shy (Larry Shyatt), I believe kids can play in this state, but I need the very best.”
Prior to Legerski taking the room, men’s basketball coach Larry Shyatt spoke, telling the crowd about his progress with the Cowboy basketball program. He answered a question from the crowd about if he was recruiting any more in-state kids, and he answered candidly.
“I’ll be honest, I’m not recruiting anyone in the state of Wyoming right now,” he said, explaining the importance of being competitive in today’s game and mentioning Torrington guard Jason McManamen from his 2012 class.
It’s hard to criticize his tactics at this point, Shyatt is winning basketball games at a rate Wyoming hasn’t seen.
“I think, putting it in perspective, coming off back-to-back 10-21 seasons when I took the job, we feel pretty relieved at this point that we could get 21 wins and get that credibility back,” Shyatt told The Sheridan Press Wednesday before speaking. “But we’re not content, and we feel like we’ve got a lot of work to do in this particular league.”
Shyatt did his part in bragging up the Mountain West Conference to the crowd, likening its level of basketball in 2012-13 to what the SEC has been to college football for the past several years.
“It’s a catch-22, television has added to a lot of fan support it’s also detracted, especially in a cold climate like this to fan interest at the game,” he said, addressing the issue of how to spread that success to Sheridan and the difficulty of securing more televised games.
“Consequently, we go on the road to [conference teams] and they’re standing an hour before the game waiting to get a seat. And yet, coming in our building sometimes, we don’t have that ambiance, it’s cold, it’s hard to get to Laramie.
“Yes, I would love more TV, but I wish our games were played in June and July.”
Legerski pointed out how when the Cowgirls had Cheyenne-natives Megan McGuffey and Hillary Carlson they saw a growth in their fan base.
“Well, I’m up here in Sheridan now,” he said of his recruiting.
“I know it’s a tough drive,” Legerski said, admitting that the five coaches who visited Wednesday night actually avoided the five-hour drive from Laramie by flying yesterday.
“What I tell my players is this, people may not get a chance to see you play,” he continued, “but they know what you’re doing, and they will follow your progress.
“You need to understand how much pride the Wyoming fans take in their institution.”
Three other coaches — track, soccer and wrestling — spoke Wednesday night. While their ties to Sheridan aren’t as strong as the one seen with the Cowgirls, they’re there.
Wrestling coach Mark Branch has raised the caliber of Cowboy wrestling to a Top 25 contender for three years running, the program’s success perhaps the Pokes best kept secret.
Wyoming wrestling endured its share of challenges last season. After graduating All-Americans Joe LeBlanc and Shane Onufer, dealing with behavioral issues and coming to the end of his inaugural recruiting class, Branch leaned on in-state kids to prevent having to pull others out of red-shirt and throw off the program’s strides.
“Wyoming kids find a place in the Wyoming wrestling program,” Branch said. He sat next to UW grappling alum and SHS wrestling coach Tyson Shatto Wednesday.
Four starters and four other contributors from the state were led exclusively by Gillette’s Tyler Cox, a 2013 All-American who paced the Cowboys last season on their way to a third-straight conference championship. Cox became the first All-American grappler at UW since 1970, something he accomplished as just a sophomore.
First-year track coach Bryan Berryhill touched on a Sheridan connection as well. Shauna Smith, Taylor Gardner and now Michael Rotellini give Sheridan a presence on Wyoming track.
“We’re definitely recruiting this state and this city real hard, and that’s what we’ve got to do with our program to get better,” he said.
But the show stealer was always going to be Legerski, and rightfully so.
Locals know how Sheridan High School graduate Woodward has far-exceeded anything that may have been expected of her in two years in Laramie, becoming the heartbeat and something of a folk hero on the Cowgirls in such a short time. The classic sharpshooter.
“I knew she could shoot,” Legerski continued. “I asked coach Shyatt one day, ‘I need someone who can bang inside like Leonard Washington.’ He goes, ‘I need someone who can shoot like Kayla Woodward.”
That statement may not have been more encompassing of the two teams’ 2012-13 seasons, which they recapped Wednesday night.
Shyatt, a natural in front of a microphone, pleaded with the crowd to understand the Cowboys trials and tribulations from what was started as a 13-0 season and suddenly became a year of indescribable challenges finishing in a CBI berth, still postseason play.
He acknowledged a “disappointing loss in their best player,” Luke Martinez, the senior shooting guard who’s legal troubles have been well documented.
Both teams saw 20-plus win seasons. The Cowgirls won 24 games, reaching the WNIT, bouncing back from 12 the year before.
Legerski thanked Pam Woodward for rebounding 20,000 shots over the summer — make that rebounding 20,000 made shots — helping Kayla reacher her outlandish but effective training goal in the off season.
“Why do you yell at Kayla to shoot? Because she can,” Legerski said simply. “Look for number 4.”
That story by itself is one Sheridan can be proud of. But as most know by now, there’s plenty more.
“Fallon Lewis did everything we asked her,” Legerski lauded the former TR Lady Eagle and SC Lady General who transferred to Laramie last year. “All of a sudden I just need a rebounder…I need somebody to shoot 3s, Fallon finds a way to do it.”
Just don’t get Ranchester and Dayton mixed up, he joked again about Fallon, a Dayton-native and a player he called a “great asset.”
Hailey Ligocki, Laramie-bound in the fall, was there to listen to her new coach speak.
“I recruit players. I recruit winners, I recruit tough kids. Hailey brings that to our program,” Legerski said.
He admitted that he has a team stacked with guards, just last week bringing on Sheridan College guard Jasmine Davis as well, making the Sheridan County connection four on the Cowgirls 2013-14 roster.
“Now my challenge is, not how to get all these players on the floor, but how do I find a plane big enough to get all you guys to our games,” he said.
It doesn’t take a longtime Wyoming native to know that Sheridan is no quick weekend trip to Laramie, and that fan-anomaly was a recurring topic of conversation Wednesday night.
“That’s the biggest part, when you’re there we know it,” Legerski said. “I sure see a lot of Sheridan people down at games.”
It’s worth noting that while the room was flooded with Pokes Brown and Gold Wednesday, Legerski wore blue, directing his statement at Don Julian when he said he did it for the Broncs.
“I think it’s rare that all of a sudden our focus has been to one part of the state,” he admitted, speaking with The Press before the event. “It’s not rare that they can play. They play at a very high level, and I’m all about giving kids an opportunity to help us win.
“I’ve been pleased with what’s happened with our program. Most importantly, they want to be at Wyoming. That’s a big plus anytime you look at recruitment of kids and the success of players is how much they actually want to be at Wyoming.”
For Shyatt, Legerski’s comment was an answer to the seemingly impossible task he faced when he took the reins in 2011 — how do you get basketball players to come to Laramie and stay. By now, wins have made the problem an afterthought.
“I think our assistant coaches are doing a tremendous job of trying to go character first, family first, values first,” he said before the event. “And even if we jump down a half of level in terms of skill, we’d like to make sure we don’t shortcut the other avenue because I’m not sure we can get a better innate talented player than a few of these teams in the league that are basketball-only programs, but I do think we can get a good, representable team.”
Legerski has it easy — the ultimate hometown fan base a couple hundred miles from Laramie.
“I think the biggest thing is that we have a connection with the players that we have,” he said. “It’s easy to be a Kayla Woodward or a Fallon Lewis fan if you get a chance to see them play.”