CHEYENNE – Few parts of society were not impacted by COVID-19 in 2020. So it comes as no surprise that three stories related to the novel coronavirus top the list of WyoSports’ top 10 sports stories of the year.
Organizers of Wyoming’s six largest rodeos held off on decisions about whether to hold their events for as long as they could. Ultimately, Cheyenne Frontier Days, Central Wyoming Fair & Rodeo in Casper, Laramie Jubilee Days, Sheridan WYO Rodeo and Thermopolis Cowboy Rendezvous were all shelved May 27. The Cody Stampede was announced as part of that group, but later decided to contest its rodeo in early July.
“No matter how we tried to find solutions collectively, we recognized the challenges were exceptional and the risk of failure could set these rodeos back for years to come,” Gov. Mark Gordon said during a joint news conference.
This summer marked the first year since 1896 without a Cheyenne Frontier Days. That historic decision topped WyoSports stories of the year, garnering four first-place votes and two second-place nods.
The decision to cancel the rodeos was made with the hope of slowing the spread of COVID-19 while keeping volunteers safe and local businesses open, CFD Chief Executive Officer Tom Hirsig said.
“One of the worst things we could do was cause our state to go backward in the recovery process, to shut down businesses that just reopened because we caused another outbreak,” said Hirsig, who spoke on behalf of the rodeo organizations. “This would go entirely against our mission.”
Hirsig won CFD’s steer roping championship in 2002. From providing stock to serving as Miss Frontier, his family has been involved in the event since it started.
Those deep ties made it even more difficult for Hirsig to stand in front of CFD’s board of directors and suggest they cancel this year’s festivities. He spent the early weeks of the nationwide shutdown trying to figure out how to hold a smaller-scale event, whether it would diminish the experience too much and whether a pandemic-friendly version of the “Daddy of ’em All” was cost-effective.
CFD decided to err on the side of caution.
“Seeing people come to town and all the joy and fun they have is something you never want to miss after you’ve been part of Cheyenne Frontier Days,” Hirsig said. “It just gets in your blood. Our community of 60,000 people has an event that’s a bucket list item for people across the world.
“That’s really neat to think about. Unfortunately, we just wouldn’t have been able to provide that experience this year.”
2. COVID-19 impacts prep sports
A Sheridan County woman was the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Wyoming. That announcement came roughly 18 hours before the first games of the Wyoming Class 4A and 3A state basketball tournaments were slated to tip off.
In the middle of those opening games, it was announced that the remainder of the tournament would be played without fans or media present. The tournament was postponed less than an hour after that. Within days, the tournament was scrapped altogether, and doubt was cast upon prospects for a spring sports season.
The soccer and outdoor track and field seasons were officially canceled by the Wyoming High School Activities Association on April 7.
“I know they’re doing what’s right because of COVID-19, but I’m really bummed out,” Cheyenne Central senior thrower Kaitlyn Migneault said. “I was really looking forward to competing. … I was excited to see where this season would go. I was hopeful we’d get some sort of season, despite everything.”
Cheyenne East boys soccer coach Ryan Cameron felt cancellation was imminent, but was still shell-shocked by the decision.
“It’s heartbreaking for our seniors,” an emotional Cameron said. “… I’ll get a chance to come back and coach again, but they’ll never get the chance to come back and play high school soccer again.”
3. MW does about-face on football
In early August, the Mountain West conference announced that its football teams would play 10-game schedules starting Sept. 26. Less than a week later, the league announced it was delaying fall sports until at least the spring.
That changed again around the time football had been slated to start.
On Sept. 25, the MW announced that the development and cost of rapid COVID-19 testing was going to allow its football teams to play eight-game schedules starting Oct. 24.
A UW team picked to finish second in the Mountain Division went 2-4 after having two games canceled because of COVID-19 issues within the Air Force and Utah State football programs.
Cowboys coach Craig Bohl didn’t want to use the pandemic as an excuse for his team not living up to expectations, but he said it did have an impact.
“Do I think we underachieved as a football program this year? Yes. Yes, the answer is yes,” he said. “And I want to say this, I’m responsible for that.”
4. East avenges loss with title
Cheyenne East opened the football season by losing at Thunder Basin, 34-28. The Thunderbirds led for most of the game before the Bolts rallied for the win late.
East used the lessons it learned in that contest to win its next 11 games and secure its fourth Class 4A state championship in school history. The T-Birds beat Thunder Basin 29-15 in the state title tilt.
A fierce wind grounded East’s prolific passing offense, but it rolled up 279 yards on the ground and scored 22 fourth-quarter points to pull away for the win.
Senior quarterback Graedyn Buell – who was later voted 4A’s offensive player of the year for the second consecutive season – accounted for 235 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
5. Cress continues success
Hillsdale’s Brody Cress – a 2014 Cheyenne East graduate – didn’t get the chance to compete for his fourth consecutive Cheyenne Frontier Days saddle bronc riding championship. However, he continued to add to a résumé that has established him as one of the best saddle bronc riders in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
The 24-year-old qualified for his fourth National Finals Rodeo earlier this month. Despite a tough run that saw him tally seven qualified rides in 10 attempts and finish 11th in the NFR’s aggregate standings, Cress still ended the year third in the PRCA’s world standings.
He banked nearly $174,000 on the season.
6. Bohls pony up for scholarships
The NCAA offered seniors in spring sports an additional year of eligibility after COVID-19 wiped out the spring sports season. The question for schools – especially those with smaller budgets – was how they were going to cover the cost of those additional scholarships.
UW football coach Craig Bohl and his wife, Leia, donated $100,000 to the school to do just that.
“Leia and I have really been blessed. It’s very rewarding for us to be in the Wyoming community,” Bohl said. “As opposed to waiting maybe for the dust to settle, Leia and I felt it was important. We were in a position to give.”
The estimated costs of the partial scholarships for the five athletes who chose to return was $70,000. The remaining funds were used to support UW’s athletics training table and other student-athlete nutritional needs.
“(Bohl is) giving us the opportunity to do what we love for one more year, something that was cut short, something that we get to experience one more time,” Cowgirls golfer Erin Sargent said. “I can’t say how thankful I am.”
7. Cowboys hoops changes coaches
Consecutive 20-loss seasons resulted in UW men’s basketball coach Allen Edwards being fired March 9. He was 60-76 in four seasons at the helm.
His first two seasons after being elevated to head coach after Larry Shyatt’s retirement were successful. UW won 43 games across those years, and won the 2017 College Basketball Invitational tournament.
The Cowboys have six seasons of 20 or more losses, and two of those came under Edwards.
UW made a run to the semifinals of the MW tournament, but that wasn’t enough to save its coach.
“After considering all factors, we have not seen the type of on-court success we expect at Wyoming,” athletics director Tom Burman said. “We have a rich basketball tradition, and we need to return Cowboy basketball to a prominent position in the Mountain West Conference.”
Jeff Linder was hired to replace Edwards. Linder went 80-50 in four seasons at Northern Colorado.
COVID-19 altered the way coaches recruited prospective student-athletes, but Linder and his staff were able to lock down a signing class that ranked atop the MW and in the top 60 nationally.
The Cowboys are currently 6-1 entering Saturday’s MW opener at Fresno State.
8. Two UW linebackers get drafted
April’s NFL draft saw a pair of UW linebackers selected.
Logan Wilson – who graduated from Natrona County High in Casper – was taken in the third round with the No. 65 overall selection by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Cassh Maluia was chosen in the sixth round by the New England Patriots. He was the 204th overall pick.
“My heart was pounding when I got the call,” Wilson said. “(The Bengals) were just talking about how they were nervous the whole day because they didn’t think I’d be available.”
Wilson has missed the past two games because of a foot injury, but has 33 tackles (23 solo), three pass breakups, two interceptions and a sack in 12 games this season.
Maluia – who hails from Southern California – was cut from the Patriots roster right after training camp and once again during the regular season. He has bounced between the club’s practice squad and active roster and has mostly played special teams this season. Maluia played in New England’s 38-9 loss to visiting Buffalo on Monday night, but he has not recorded a tackle in any of his eight games.
9. Spring sports coaches get paid after all
In late March, Laramie County School District 1 told its spring sports coaches they would receive one-sixth of their stipends when it became clear their seasons would – at the very least – be shortened due to COVID-19. Coaches would get their full stipends if the season was contested, the district said.
Practices for soccer and outdoor track and field started March 9, but were suspended days later when the first case of novel coronavirus was diagnosed in Wyoming.
“At this time, we’re waiting to see what happens with the Wyoming High School Activities Association, and whether there’s going to be any extensions and those type of things before we make a decision on where we’re going to move forward with everything,” LCSD1 superintendent Boyd Brown told WyoSports on March 27.
The spring sports season was officially called off April 7.
In May, LCSD1 reversed course and paid spring sports coaches their full stipend after they completed a series of educational courses through the National Federation of State High School Associations. Those one- to two-hour online trainings covered topics such as bullying, hazing, care of injuries and dealing with parent and fan behavior. Coaches were quizzed on what they had learned at the end of each course.
“Other districts were paying their coaches their full stipends, so I’m glad our district made the choice it did,” Cheyenne south boys soccer coach Jeremy Francis said. “There were some good coaches who were talking about walking away if the district only paid us one-sixth of our stipends. It was frustrating, and it was worrisome.
“There are young coaches who were really counting on that money. The guys on my staff were overjoyed to hear they were getting their full stipends.”
10. Central girls continue tennis dominance
To say the Cheyenne Central girls tennis team has had a nice run of success recently would be grossly understating it.
The state championship the Lady Indians captured Sept. 26 was the sixth they have won outright or shared in the past seven seasons.
Senior Emily Needham’s three-set victory over Kelly Walsh’s Finley Klinger not only secured her repeat as the No. 1 singles champion, it also locked up the team title. Central finished with 50 team points, while runner-up Kelly Walsh had 47.
The Indians also got a championship from the No. 1 doubles tandem of Kaitlyn and Ashli Smedley and the No. 2 doubles team of Sarah Foster and Kaitlyn Ackerman.
Needham and the Smedley sisters finished the season undefeated.
“We went into it knowing we were going to have some tough competition with Sheridan and Kelly Walsh, and we had been figuring out who needed to win what,” said coach Karen Clark who is a Central alumna. “We knew everybody’s points counted. We lost some matches we were hoping to win, but everyone pulled through in the end and did an amazing job.”