CHEYENNE – Madison Blaney spent a good chunk of Friday moving to Sheridan, just as she had planned the day before.
The Cheyenne East graduate is going to spend the rest of the summer in her old hometown, working at a car wash with her older brother, Zach. She might even pick up another part-time job to earn a little more cash.
Blaney expected to leave those jobs when classes and basketball practice started at Sheridan College in the fall.
But part of those plans changed Thursday.
Sheridan and Gillette colleges announced they were cutting their athletic programs effectively immediately. The Northern Wyoming Community College District, which governs both schools, said it was making the move to cut costs after identifying a financial emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this month. Axing its athletic programs will save $2.8 million annually, the NWCCD said.
That move has left hundreds of athletes scrambling to find new places to continue their careers, including four from Cheyenne.
In addition to Blaney, East grad Kaitlin Castle was going to play soccer at Sheridan, and Cheyenne Central alumna Ellie Fearneyhough was going to play volleyball for Sheridan. East alum Thomas Watson was set to be a sophomore goalkeeper for Gillette College’s men’s soccer team.
“My coach called me in the morning and told me what had happened, and he was absolutely heartbroken for us,” Blaney said. “He made sure we knew he had no idea this was going to happen, and that he would have changed it if there was anything he could do.”
The school’s decision has hit Blaney particularly hard. She grew up in Sheridan before her family moved to Cheyenne prior to her sophomore year. Blaney went to Sheridan College games and athletics camps. Her paternal grandmother, Agnes, has driven the bus for the Generals women’s and men’s basketball teams for several decades.
“The people in Sheridan are amazing, and they really care about that school, and they really support the teams,” Blaney said.
The NWCCD has told student-athletes it will honor their scholarships. Blaney said it’s too early to know what her next step will be.
“I know my schooling is going to be paid for up here, and the animal science program is incredible,” Madison Blaney said. “But I also really want to play basketball. There are some other schools I was close to signing with, so I might talk to them and see if they still have roster spots and scholarships available.”
The abruptness of the NWCCD decision isn’t lost on Castle. She was in Sheridan touring the campus and handling paperwork just last week.
“This is really upsetting because I have wanted to play either basketball or soccer at Sheridan since I saw their campus when I was a sophomore,” Castle said. “It’s a beautiful campus, and the coach was super nice.”
Castle’s father, Cory, spent most of her senior year on a military deployment and only recently returned. She was looking forward to monthly visits from Cory, who does training in Sheridan.
She had heard from two schools by Friday morning, one of which was offering a larger scholarship than the one she had gotten from Sheridan.
“I’m definitely not going to Sheridan, even though they’re going to honor my scholarship,” Castle said. “I’d still like to play soccer in college, so I’m going to see what’s out there, how much the scholarships are worth and whether it makes sense for my family.”
Fearneyhough had several people reach out with well wishes before she even heard Sheridan had dropped its program. Generals coach Casey Quiggle confirmed the news to his players in a video conference.
“Just a few days ago, he had told us we were going to have a season, but we were going to have to take extra precautions, check temperatures and clean the equipment a lot (because of COVID-19),” Fearneyhough said. “This really came out of the blue. It’s been a roller-coaster of emotions just trying to figure out what’s my best move.”
She is considering accepting Sheridan’s scholarship offer, focusing on her academics and seeing what athletic opportunities open up throughout the year.
“I’m not really sure what options I have at this point because I completely stopped talking to coaches when I committed in November,” she said. “I could try to sign with another school, but I’m not sure how many of them even have (scholarship) money left at this point.
“If I go to Sheridan, it’s going to be really weird. It will be the first time I can remember just going to school and not also playing a sport at the same time.”
Unlike the Sheridan trio, Watson actually got to experience a college season before the rug was pulled from beneath him.
“It’s been really shocking because I was counting on that scholarship to pay for college,” said Watson, who recorded seven saves across 15 matches for Gillette last fall. “I have no idea what I’m going to do.
“I also don’t know what the college is going to do. They say it’s to save money, but I don’t know if that’s going to be the case. Athletics is what brought most people into the dorms.”
Watson hopes to find somewhere else to play, but knows the timing of the NWCCD announcement has left a lot of players in a bind because few colleges have roster spots or scholarships available. Pronghorns coach Saber Garcia told his players he would try to help them find a landing spot, but that he was going to prioritize the international players because their transfer involves more from a logistical standpoint.
“This is really devastating for those guys because they dreamed about coming here to play, and they worked so hard to make it happen,” Watson said. “I know (Garcia) is really going to push himself and help all of his boys out.”
In the meantime, Watson is going to focus on the nine credits of summer school he is taking. That includes a public speaking course he is doing over videoconferencing software.
“When I’m not doing that, I’m going to try to get my film together and send it out to coaches,” Watson said. “I know it’s going to be tough, but I’ve got to try.”