SHERIDAN — The squeak of basketball shoes on hardwood and the rhythmic drum of basketballs bouncing returned to Sheridan County gyms this week after the high schools’ holiday breaks, and the various boys and girls basketball teams hold different records prior to this weekend’s games and the start of conference play next week.
Those records, most of which are over .500 through three or four games, don’t denote the wins earned or explain the losses suffered to programs of different Wyoming High School Activities Association classifications.
The 2A Big Horn High School boys basketball team started 0-2, but lost back-to-back games to 3A Lovell and 3A Buffalo before winning back-to-back games against fellow 2A opponents to ultimately take a 2-2 record into its holiday break. Three practices after the two-week vacation, the 4A Sheridan High School boys basketball team traveled to Buffalo Thursday to renew a rivalry and test itself against a less-frequent opponent.
Playing down a class, as Sheridan did, affords the team the opportunity to play with pressure as “favorites” to win. Playing up a class, like Big Horn three weeks ago, can erode trust in a first-year head coach’s system but prepares the Rams for postseason play in March.
“You get to see tougher competition,” Big Horn boys basketball head coach Cody Ball said. “... Those 3A games benefit us even if we get our butts kicked a little bit.”
Four classes for the sports of basketball, volleyball and track are determined by the WHSAA based on enrollment, with the 16 largest schools being 4A, the next largest 16 as 3A, the next largest 16 falling into the 2A classification and the remaining schools all 1A. Classes don’t correlate with talent or program competitiveness.
Ball said coaching his Big Horn Rams team to a 65-41 loss to Lovell and 75-49 defeat to Buffalo to start the season leads to a lack of faith in his newly implemented system and damages athletes’ confidence. But the bigger schools of a higher class roster more athletes as a product of greater enrollment and, thus, the chances of a higher volume of talented competitors playing on the floor at any given moment increases.
Senior Carson Bates pointed out playing different, successful teams excites the Rams and forces the team to focus on playing their best despite facing the deeper rosters. And Big Horn felt more prepared to return to 2A competition after its first two losses.
The Lady Rams similarly played Lovell and Buffalo, losing 43-20 and 65-21, respectively, to start their season. Senior Madison Butler echoed Bates’ statements, saying competition against 3A opponents will make Big Horn better in the long run and noted the physicality increases and officiating changes slightly during 3A competition.
Additionally, the 3A schools the Lady Rams play can often resemble the bigger 2A schools the Lady Rams will play in the future, Big Horn girls basketball head coach Kip Butler said, and figuring out how to find success defensively against bigger and stronger athletes leads to commitment to the process.
“I appreciate it,” Butler said. “I relish the challenges it gives our team because it makes us understand what it takes to play at the next level.”
Besides the difference in level of competition, the variety of competition heightens a team’s competitiveness as Sheridan Broncs head coach Jeff Martini points out. Sheridan might play the same 4A team three, four or five times during the course of a season and playing 3A Buffalo forces the Broncs to adapt and prepare for an unordinary opponent as well as manage expectations.
“The pressure is on the team who’s a class above,” Martini said. “... This gives us an experience where we have to come out and be ready to go. We have to learn from first being on the road, and being ‘the favorites’ and going out and trying to get a win.”
The cross-class contests originate from attempting to reduce travel throughout the state — Buffalo High School stands approximately 40 miles away from Sheridan — and Martini remembers the geographic rivalry adding an edge to each team’s play.
Sheridan Lady Broncs head basketball coach Ryan Sullivan views competition against a 3A school like Buffalo as just another game, and coaches and athletes alike agreed nothing should change for their team when playing any team, regardless of class.
“We approach it the same way we approach any other game,” junior Reed Rabon said. “It’s a good challenge for us to play smaller teams to keep playing at that high competitive level that we’re used to.”