Campbell County High School senior Jefferson Neary clearly remembers one of the shock and awe moments as a youngser playing traveling basketball.
He and the CCHS summer basketball program’s sixth grade team were playing one of its 80 to 100 games during the offseason. In this instance, Neary was a sixth grader playing in a big tournament in Arizona.
During warmups, the time where players glance to the other end of the court to scout the competition, Neary and his teammates found themselves looking wide-eyed at their Los Angeles opponents. The sixth-grade team they were about to face was highlighted by a 6-foot-7 center.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Neary said. “We got beat pretty bad, but it was a good experience.”
A year later, the Camels were losing by 23 in Las Vegas against another LA team. As a seventh grader, Neary scored 27 points in the second half and said he hit a step-back prayer from nearly half court to complete the improbable comeback win.
Seeing all-star AAU teams, sometimes losing by a lot, has honed Neary and the rest of his CCHS teammates for what really mattered — the high school basketball season.
“To be able to play against all those different guys, you don’t get scared of anyone,” Neary said. “I think that this AAU stuff that coach (Bubba) Hladky does for us definitely prepares us to take that step. ... He’s getting all these dudes opportunities that they’d never get anywhere else.”
When Neary’s time arrived to play meaningful varsity minutes in a Camels jersey, his nerves were jangling. But he was ready.
His first appearance was off the bench against Rapid City Central, a top-notch program in South Dakota. Neary’s first shot went off the side of the backboard, but then he made three 3s.
Then the following day, Neary exploded for 25 points against Scottsbluff, Nebraska. He scored 17 in the second quarter and said that was when he knew that he belonged in a varsity jersey.
It may be called the offseason, but prep basketball players in Campbell County pride themselves on using the time between seasons to get a leg up on the rest of the state.
That dedication has been the catalyst for more than 20 state championships over the past three decades, but this offseason has been different.
By this time last year, the Campbell County High School summer basketball program already had played in nine or 10 tournaments. COVID-19 shut down team activities and gyms altogether until recently, which put a hitch in maintaining a high standard in Gillette.
When CCHS girls basketball coach Mitch Holst took over the program 26 years ago, the offseason work was already happening. It was one of, if not the only, Wyoming communities that took a year-round approach to the sport.
The revamp started in 1987. Mike Hladky, who was a Campbell County School District trustee at the time, said offseason basketball wasn’t an attempt to get ahead of the rest of the state, but an attempt to catch up.
Gillette was a state contender in several sports in the 1960s. But the Camels moved up from Class A to Class AA in 1971 as Gillette’s population began to grow. The result for prep athletics the next several years wasn’t pretty.
“We just got our butts handed to us,” Hladky said.
The CCHS football team went from averaging two losses a season to only winning two games in three seasons from 1971-73. The Camels had turned into the team that high schools would circle on their schedules as a guaranteed win, Hladky said.
The CCHS boys basketball team had eight winning records in a row from 1963-1970. But after moving up in classification, that winning percentage didn’t climb above.500 again until 1985.
Campbell County was far from dominant in the the early ’80s. But that began to change in 1987 when Hladky started coaching his daughter, Braidi, and the rest of the high school girls that offseason.
“You can second-guess why it happened, but I think it was hunger for victories,” Hladky said about putting more focus on preparation year-round. “We’d been getting our butts kicked so many years in a row.”
Four years later, the group of freshmen he started were crowned as Class 4A state champs under CCHS coach Mitch Holst. Holst, now CCHS’ most decorated girls basketball coach, said he could notice the difference the first day of practice between those who had been in the offseason program and those who hadn’t.
“We were one of the first communities to really embrace (offseason basketball) wholeheartedly,” Holst said. “The first big component to getting ahead was spending the time between March and November just getting better.
“It gave us kind of a leg up and helped us cement the foundation of what we like to do, both in the boys and girls programs.”
The glory years
In the process of trying to catch up to the rest of the state, the Gillette sports programs did more than catch up, they surpassed everyone else, Hladky said.
He coached the girls offseason program until 1990, before doing the same for the boys. Garland Marso took over the girls program and had a dominant run with the Gillette Force.
Soon the word “offseason” never meant the same in Gillette.
For about 10 years, Hladky loaded players into van and drove the team to tournaments in surrounding states.
But as the coal industry grew and more money flowed into Gillette, Campbell County basketball started widening its reach. The Camels became known in places like Las Vegas and California during packed summer schedules.
“There was one point where we went to five states in five consecutive weekends and won five championships,” Hladky said. “They were that good. That was Sundance Wicks’ senior year.”
Wicks, now an assistant men’s basketball coach at the University of Wyoming, graduated from CCHS in 1999. That was near the tail end of a CCHS reign of dominance over the rest of the state.
The boys basketball program won 10 state championships from 1990 to 2002, including seven straight. The CCHS girls team won 12 titles from 1991 to 2004, including a streak of five straight.
In the midst of the championship years, both of Gillette’s current boys basketball coaches were crowned as Camels players. Rory Williams, who now coaches Thunder Basin High School, won three in a row from 1993-95, while CCHS coach Bubba Hladky won titles in 1990 and 1992.
Williams also played baseball and only went to a few summer hoops tournaments, but he still noticed how basketball outpaced the team’s rivals.
“Back in the ’90s and early on, Campbell County was one of the few that played year-round,” Williams said. “I think the rest of the state realized, ‘We’re going to have to put in some time during the offseason to get to that level.’
“I think you see a lot more of that statewide now.”
As the successes started multiplying, Campbell County hoops became known for its up-tempo, run-and-gun style. The Camels shot a lot of 3-pointers and usually had several talented players ready to come off the bench.
Mike Hladky said he made his players sign a contract at the beginning of the offseason committing to be the hardest working team. He wouldn’t even bring scorebooks to tournaments because he didn’t want his players getting caught up in their own stats.
The style of play in the offseason fit well with the boys and girls programs at CCHS. It became even more seamless when Holst and Mike Curry took over their respective offseason programs a little over a decade ago.
When it was time for the season to start, Holst said he could tell who had been in the gym over the summer and who hadn’t.
“It’s such a skill-driven sport. You have to be able to play the way we want to play, which is fast and everybody can handle the ball,” Holst said. “The way we like to play, it’s almost mandatory that you get in the gym on your own and get better.”
Getting back to work
Personal motivation, along with having somewhere to play, has been more important than ever this offseason.
TBHS and CCHS players will always remember the exact point COVID-19 started to shut down the state of Wyoming. One of the first marquee events to be canceled was the 3A/4A WHSAA State Basketball Tournament. They were already in Casper to play the tournament, then had to get back on buses and come home without playing.
Three months has passed since that day, meaning Gillette basketball players have been without any structured team activities for more than half the offseason during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Developmentally, it feels like we’ve missed three, four months of working with the team on individual skills as well as the open gyms,” Bubba Hladky said. “That’s almost a season right there for skill development.”
In a normal summer, the CCHS summer team travels to about 12 tournaments, with a hiatus in July, before playing in the summer finale in Las Vegas. At TBHS and within the CCHS girls program, going to four or five tournaments is more common.
There’s a benefit to playing actual games and building cohesion with teammates, but an offseason is two prong, Holst said. Five-on-five basketball is the end game, but it’s the individual skills that builds the foundation.
“What’s more important — and Coach (Mike) Curry was really the first to preach this — is that you have to get yourself in the gym and work on your own,” Holst said. “Those are things you don’t really need a team to do. And you don’t have to travel everywhere to get better if you spend time getting better on your own.”
Offseason progress was a priority for the CCHS girls this year, because the Camels finished with an all-time low shooting percentage and scoring average, Holst said, adding his players just didn’t spend enough time in the gym last summer.
Fortunately, the Campbell County School District’s variance to allow basketball teams back into school gyms was approved last week.
Both high schools already are taking advantage, but the open gyms don’t look quite the same. Social distancing, temperature readings and other restrictions have changed the complexion of summer practices.
Many, like incoming TBHS junior McKale Holte, returned to the court at the Campbell County Recreation Center at the first opportunity. Before that, he said he was trying to practice exclusively in his backyard. But he was mostly limited to ball handing drills because of the wind.
Getting back in the Thunder Basin gym with his friends and teammates was exactly what he needed.
“It feels really good to be back out there with them. Obviously, with the way it ended last year, it’s a relief to know you get another year with some of those guys,” Holte said. “It’s been great seeing the guys back in there and knowing they want to accomplish the same thing we wanted to last year.”
Offseason basketball has a much different look this year. But as Holst points out, the endless effort between seasons has “been the backbone” for Campbell County’s success for more than 30 years.
That’s not going to change anytime soon, even if the rest of the state has closed the gap since Gillette’s dominance in the 1990s.