CHEYENNE – Although some came close, no Wyoming high school football team had more success during the 2010s than Sheridan.
The Broncs won five state championships, played for two more, and advanced to the semifinals three other times. They also won 84% of their games, which was the third-best winning percentage in the state over the past 10 years.
Those factors earned Sheridan Program of the Decade honors from WyoSports. It finished with 147 points, while Big Horn and Natrona County split second with 142.
The roots that anchor the Broncs’ success this decade can be traced three directions.
The 27 state championships Sheridan has won since 1921 are the most of any school in the state, according to Wyoming-Football.com.
Jeff Mowry, who has coached the Broncs the past two seasons, quarterbacked Riverton to the 1998 and ’99 Class 3A state titles. Don Julian – Mowry’s coach in Riverton – guided Sheridan to four championships between 2009 and ’17 before stepping down.
Julian’s arrival in 2007 helped reignite Sheridan’s passion for the sport.
“I’m a believer in tradition, and I feel like when a school has a tradition in a sport like football, it’s easier to bring success back,” said Julian, who remains Sheridan’s athletics director. “When they drop into a drought, there’s an expectation the drought is going to end and you’ll get back to winning again.
“I knew this was a community where football was important. What we found when we got here was there were talented kids, but they had forgotten how to win. We started a process that continues today.”
Trust the process
Sheridan is the smallest school in Class 4A. According to the average daily membership numbers compiled by the Wyoming High School Athletics Association, just shy of 1,000 students roam the halls at the school a few miles from the Montana border.
The smaller student population has made intangibles just as important as – if not more than – schemes, Mowry said.
“You have to have the X’s and O’s, you have to have good players, and you have to have good coaches, but everyone in 4A has that,” he said. “We had to figure out what we could do differently so a school with 900-plus kids could compete against the Casper schools that have almost 2,000 kids, and the Cheyenne schools that have 1,500.”
The answer was a culture of preparation, trust and leadership.
Julian started taking his Sheridan seniors on the same leadership retreats he used with his Riverton players from 1993-2001. He expected them to become extensions of the coaching staff. He wanted them to help motivate, forge bonds with and bring the best out of their teammates. If a player wasn’t comfortable with, or cut out for, a leadership role, Julian needed them to be good followers.
“We always tell the kids that not every role is equal, but every role has equal value,” he said. “We live it, we preach it, and we pound it into our kids’ heads for four years.”
Julian views trust as a two-way street. The players have to trust the coaches and their teammates. The coaches must trust their players and each other.
“Special things happen when it gets to that point,” Julian said. “You end up beating people you shouldn’t. You always have a chance to win, because both the coaches and players are battling so hard not to let any other part of the team down.”
The last thing Julian said to his teams before they took the field each game was to believe in themselves, believe in their teammates and believe in the plan.
“I felt like our kids rarely stepped onto the field with doubt in their minds,” he said. “Doubt is a horrible thing. Doubt is a killer. When there’s a little bit of doubt in you, there’s hesitation and there’s cautiousness.
“You’re not as able to overcome adversity when you have doubt in your mind.”
Mowry went 22-1 as Julian’s starting quarterback, then served on Julian’s coaching staff for 10 seasons. He describes his relationship as far more than just coach-player.
Naturally, little has changed since Mowry took the reins of the Broncs.
“I have basically tried to follow the formula he put in front of us,” Mowry said. “His fingerprints are all over this program. (Julian) may not be at every practice or every game, but you look at our practice schedule, the way we run drills, the way we organize our coaches and run the team, and about 99% of it is what he used to do.
“The challenge for me was to not screw things up. Hopefully, I haven’t messed it up too bad yet.”
If the past two seasons are any indication, Sheridan is in good hands with Mowry.
The Broncs beat Thunder Basin 35-26 to win the Class 4A state championship last month. They were state runners-up during Mowry’s first season at the helm.
The fact Sheridan hasn’t skipped a beat since changing coaches isn’t lost on the players.
“It’s a testament to our culture, and it starts with our coaching staff,” senior quarterback Jacob Boint said. “They’re a great group of leaders. It trickles down, and the kids buy into the process and working the steps and doing whatever the coaches tell us because we know they’re going to put us in a good spot.”
Continuity is key
Coaching continuity is a trait shared by the majority of the teams in the top 10 of WyoSports’ Program of the Decade rankings.
Natrona County has largely had the same coaching staff since Steve Harshman took over as coach in 1991. The Mustangs won four state titles in the 2010s, and played in three more title games.
Big Horn posted the second-highest winning percentage of the decade, and won four state titles, despite splitting its time between Class 2A and 1A. Michael McGuire guided the Rams to a pair of state titles and two more runner-up finishes during his six-year tenure before taking an assistant coaching job at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.
Kirk McLaughlin was an assistant under McGuire, and added two more state titles to Big Horn’s trophy case.
Cokeville had the highest winning percentage of any team in Wyoming in the 2010s. The Panthers’ four 1A titles this decade give coach Todd Dayton 20 since taking over in Cokeville in 1980.
McKay Young was an assistant in Star Valley (sixth) before coaching it to three of the past four 3A titles. Chad Goff and Jay Rhoades just wrapped up their 14th seasons at Cheyenne East (ninth) and Douglas (seventh), respectively.
“The knowledge of what it takes to be successful, the knowledge of the kids in your program and how to utilize their skills is extremely important,” Goff said. “You know what’s coming back, and you’re not going into each off-season blind. The teams that are the most successful typically have coaches – and coaching staffs – that have been there for quite a while.”
Sheridan’s continuity extends beyond Julian and Mowry.
D.J. Dearcorn (defensive coordinator), Kevin Rizer (offensive line) and Darin Gilbertson (wide receivers and leadership development) were part of Julian’s first staff in Sheridan. Jeff Martini (defensive backs) and Marshall McEwen (defensive line) have been on staff the past six seasons.
“The transition from myself to (Mowry) has been amazingly seamless because of the process, and because it’s the same guys running things,” Julian said.
Julian has made a conscious effort to be as hands off as any other AD. That hasn’t always been easy.
“It was kind of like turning the company over to my son,” Julian said. “A lot of companies struggle because the dad still wants to be involved in it. That’s something I’m still working on to this day.
“There are times I miss it tremendously, but I’m incredibly proud of what (Mowry) and the rest of the staff have done.”
Snowball of success
Advancing deep into the playoffs each season has fringe benefits.
More players often come out each fall because they want to be part of a winner. Fans also want to share in the joy of victories. That’s an area where a one-school town like Sheridan really benefits, Goff said.
“We get into town Friday afternoon and take our kids to the park to have lunch, and you see all these people walking by in their Sheridan Broncs gear,” the East coach said. “Either you’re in, or you’re out, and they have a lot of people up there who want to be part of what they’ve got going on.”
Schools also get an extra week of practice time for each round of the playoffs. That aids player development, Harshman said.
“If we spend three weeks in the playoffs, that’s like six summer camps with the amount of reps our players get,” the Natrona coach said. “There’s no replacement for that.”
Few teams in Wyoming have gotten as much extra practice recently as Sheridan. The Broncs went 5-4 during Julian’s first year. They missed the playoffs in 2007, but it was their first winning season since going 6-3 and finishing as state runners-up in 1996.
Sheridan has advanced to the state semifinals every year since. It has won four of the past five 4A titles, and was runner-up the other season.
“This year’s seniors were in kindergarten when that semifinal streak started,” Julian said. “They were eighth-graders when we started our streak of being in the final. They take a lot of pride in keeping this run going.”
Natrona and East were the only other teams to win 4A titles during the 2010s. In 2013, East blocked a Sheridan extra-point attempt for a 28-27 semifinal win. The Thunderbirds followed that by beating Natrona 14-13 in the final.
Natrona won titles in 2010, ’12, ’14 and ’18. The Mustangs went 8-8 overall against Sheridan this decade. They split four state championship meetings.
“Sheridan does a great job of developing its kids from the time they come in as freshmen to the time they leave as seniors,” Harshman said. “That’s something we’ve been able to do since our school district put freshmen in the high schools. Kids change dramatically over four years.
“Sheridan is doing a great job. Hell, they’re doing a better job than the rest of us. The bottom line is we’re all chasing them right now.”