The easy part may or may not be over. But the fun part is definitely about to begin.
The race to state kicks off Friday for the Campbell County High School boys and girls basketball teams as the Camels begin Class 4A East Conference play against Laramie on Friday night and Cheyenne South on Saturday.
The boys are on the road this weekend, while the girls open up at home, facing Laramie and South.
The Camels’ goal is the Class 4A state tournament, scheduled for March 7-9 in Casper. But the first thing to accomplish is seeding for the East Conference tournament in Gillette starting Feb. 28.
Mike Curry, who is in his 30th season as the Camel boys’ coach and is an old hat at this stuff, summed up his team’s expectations.
“It’s pretty simple, you want to play well, obviously,” he said. “We’ve always said when you are on the road, you would like to at least split, so if you win at home. you put yourself in pretty good shape.”
Actually, winning at home and splitting on the road would pretty much guarantee a team of earning a first-round bye in the conference tournament, which translates into an automatic spot in the state tournament.
And that is the ultimate goal for both Gillette teams.
With eight of the 12 4A teams in the state advancing to the big dance each year, just getting there can be taken for granted. But the better the seed in the conference tournament, the better the chance to get to state.
So as the road to state gets started this weekend, there is plenty of good for the Camels to build on.
The Camel girls are in pretty much the same boat as the boys. They have been playing well enough on offense to beat anyone, but need to shore up their defense.
The east side of the state is by far the better of the two conferences as far as the girls go.
“There’s no doubt it’s strong top to bottom,” Camels’ coach Mitch Holst said. “We can’t afford to take any days off. It’s a good, good conference. We’ll have to be ready every night.”
Of the six teams in the east, five have winning records and the six teams have combined for a 54-19 mark so far this season. Cheyenne East tops the pack at 12-1, followed by Sheridan at 11-1, Laramie at 10-2 and Gillette at 9-2.
The west, however, is just 24-52 overall with only Casper Natrona boasting a winning record.
But Holst is hoping that the difficult non-conference schedule the third-ranked Camels played this year will start paying off.
“What I feel good about is that we were challenged in our non-conference season probably like no other year,” Holst said. “I don’t think we could have asked for a better preparation for embarking on the conference season.”
Gillette enters Friday’s game second in Class 4A in scoring (58.9 points per game), trailing only Cheyenne East (61.0). Senior Sierra Toms also ranks second in scoring with 14.5 points a game, while Dani Williams is eighth at 11.7.
The Camels have many players ranked in 4A in offensive categories, including McCorra Ford, who leads in assists with 4.4 a game; and Julia Seamans, who leads the in steals with 3.5 a game.
As a whole, the Camels rank just seventh in the state in defense, allowing 44.5 points a game.
That’s where Holst wants to see the most improvement in.
“I’d like to see more individual, one-on-one, locking down your man,” Holst said. “There’s just too many games, I think, where we allow a good scorer to just have their way with us. We have to have the mentality that ‘I’m guarding her tonight and she’s not getting hers.’”
Gillette has been the top seed in the conference tourney in three of the past four years. Despite advancing to state each time, the Camels have won the conference tournament just once.
But that may not be the biggest thing on their minds, at least not at the start of conference play.
“You just have to take one game at a time,” Ford said. “Seeding would be nice, if we could have a walk-in to the championship, that would be cool. But either way, we’ll show up to play.”
The Camels have been the top seed in the conference four times since 2007-08, and were the No. 2 seed once, last year. They finished just as they were seeding, placing first four times and second once.
So the goal is to keep improving and pile up the wins.
“I’m feeling pretty good. We’ve been playing pretty well as a team all year,” senior guard Logan Wasson said. “It’s hard to tell. It seems like a lot of the teams have been inconsistent.”
That hasn’t been much of a problem for the three top teams across both conferences. Laramie and Gillette enter Friday night’s game with identical 10-2 marks, while Riverton is atop the west at 13-1. The Wolves’ lone loss was to Gillette in the Flaming Gorge Invite back in December.
Heading into this weekend, the east has a combined record of 40-31, while the west is 39-37.
But the game against Laramie will reveal a lot about the east side of the state.
Gillette, ranked No. 1 in Class 4A, enters as league’s top scoring team at 72.2 points a game, Laramie averages 60.3. The two teams are at the top in defense, as well, with Gillette allowing 54.8 points a game and Laramie, ranked No. 3, giving up an average of 50.7 points.
“I think after Saturday (an 81-71 win at Rapid City Stevens, S.D.), we have to get better at defensive transition,” Curry said. “We have to be a little more patient still, offensively. I think our communication defensively is getting better, but definitely not there yet. But at the same time, we’re doing lots of things well.”
Junior point guard Cody Kelley, who scored a career-high 30 points against Stevens last weekend, is the 4A’s top scorer with 20.3 points a game. Wasson ranked 10th in the classification, averaging 11.9.
If you go
What: Class 4A East Conference girls’ basketball games
Where: Campbell County High School North Campus gym
When: Laramie (10-2 overall) at Gillette (9-2), 7:30 p.m. Friday; Cheyenne South at Gillette, 1:30 p.m. Saturday.