Gillette Pronghorn fans, coaches, students and athletes wait outside of Whitney Hall at Sheridan College to attend and speak at the NWCCD Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday evening.
Gillette Goes to Sheridan
Four girls decked out in Sheridan Generals basketball jerseys stood in line, fidgeting and whispering to one another, nervously.
“I don’t think they’re going to care what we have to say,” one of them said.
Another agreed, “Yeah, we’re just kids to them.”
The girls were in line to give a public comment at the Northern Wyoming Community College District (NWCCD) Board meeting at Sheridan College Wednesday night. Like dozens of other students, coaches and others attending on behalf of Gillette, they’d just exited the bus that they’d all ridden on, courtesy the city.
NWCCD announced last week that they would be cutting funds for their sports programs, effectively letting the coaches go overnight while many of the students were cut from teams and other activities. The budget was relieved of $2.8 million by defunding both schools’ men and women’s basketball and soccer programs, as well as the women’s volleyball program in Sheridan.
Countless representatives from multiple demographics showed up last night to explain why they think sports should receive funding.
Despite public comments and impending backlash, the NWCCD board Chair Walter Wragge, Vice Chair Robert Leibrich, Secretary Shelley Wilson Kinnison, and Trustees Bruce Hoffman and Norleen Healy and Treasurer Debra Wendtland all voted unanimously to move forward with the budget cuts by the end of the meeting.
Sheridan College sophomore Madison Rouche revealed, during an interview with County 17, that she and her three close friends had signed to play women’s basketball for Sheridan college this year.
Rouche said that the greatest appeal for her was the coaching staff, specifically her coach, Ryan Davis.
“I’ve always loved the coaching atmosphere here,” she said, “Playing on this team was amazing for me last year.”
Unlike Rouche, her teammate Jersie Taylor was never given the opportunity to play as a General. Taylor graduated high school this June after she had already made the “obvious choice” to sign at Sheridan College.
Since NWCCD has defunded the sports programs, Taylor said that other colleges have been contacting her and the other athletes nonstop. Regardless, Taylor and her friends showed up to the meeting in hopes that the college would reverse the decision.
“I don’t want to go anywhere else,” she said. “Those places just don’t compare to the coaching here.”
Without basketball, she noted, she wouldn’t be who she is today. And for that reason, she is unwilling to attend a school that doesn’t provide opportunities to further herself in the sport.
“I’ve been playing basketball since second grade,” she said. “There’s no way I’m going to a college where I can’t play.”
Taylor exemplified the phenomenon that former Men’s Basketball coach at Gillette College Shawn Neary has been touting the entire week. Neary explained at Monday’s Board of County Commissioner’s meeting, during Tuesday’s Gillette City Council work session meeting, on Basin Radio with Vic Wright, and again at last night’s NWCCD Board meeting that “this is about more than just sports.”
“It’s a multiplier effect,” he said during an interview with County 17. “When we lose the 80-100 student athletes, we’re losing up to 100 meal plans, 100 filled dorms, 100 kids buying books. This decision will affect everything at the college.”
Neary himself moved to Gillette in 2008, specifically to jumpstart Pronghorn basketball.
“When I started this job, we knew the basketball program would be a success,” he said last night. “Back then, the college had no cafeteria and no gym, but I could feel the passion and energy in the town, and I knew this was where I needed to be.”
NWCCD announced their decision to cut funding last Thursday. According to Neary, coaches and athletes were completely unaware that the college was considering this option.
“We were called to a meeting at 8:30 that morning,” he said, “there was no discussion, they just told us we were cut. We were completely blindsided.”
Also frustrated with the “lack of discussion” from the leadership at Sheridan College, Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell was the first to take the stage during the public comment period at last night’s meeting, having postponed his vacation to see his in-laws in order to be present last night. Bell reacted to NWCCD’s news by writing a letter in which he provided a plan to keep Gillette College’s sports programs up and running.
At Monday’s Campbell County Board of Commissioner’s meeting, Bell laid out his plan, which would entail the community providing $532,543 to NWCCD in order to carry on with sports for this coming school year.
In an interview with County 17, Bell said Gillette College has offered NWCCD an option to keep the programs alive, and that “if they refuse to consider that, then this is no longer a fiscal issue, it’s a political one.”
“At that point,” he said, “it will seem like they just don’t want these programs anymore.”
During public comment last night, Bell asked the NWCCD board to make a motion allowing Gillette College to support their own sports program through private funding. The board did not respond.
To plan for the upcoming years, Bell’s letter also proposed Gillette College create its own district under which to be governed.
“I know you received my letter and all options are on the table,” he told the board last night. “We are looking into creating our own district, but we don’t have a choice, we don’t have a seat at your table.”
A socially distanced line stretched through the auditorium to the back doors as dozens of others waited their turn to speak. At the end of the line stood Sheridan transplant Mike Lewzinger, who said he has been honored to have called the town ‘home’ for the last five years.
Lewzinger stood talking to a Sheridan college employee, who argued that, in a budgeting sense, cutting sports was a responsible decision that the board had to make.
“There are tons of businesses that support the teams and the college all together,” Lewzinger said. “I really think they would’ve done a lot to save sports, if they knew it was happening.”
Lewzinger told County 17 that he’d lived in several communities and has only seen one that could compare to Sheridan.
“I think the community should have been given the opportunity to keep this town nice,” he said. “I just want to know why no one was involved in making this decision.”
Lewzinger paused and looked at those in line ahead of him. On stage, Rusty Bell continued explaining Gillette’s plan to restore their athletic programs.
“Personally, I understand where the board is coming from,” he said. “But no matter what, you know Gillette’s going to figure out a way to keep their sports.”