Note: This is the first in a series of stories about some of Wyoming’s biggest high school sports underdogs.
The Reliance High School basketball team from 1949, one of the most remarkable teams ever fielded in Wyoming history, has two big claims to fame.
The first, most obvious, is the smaller of the two accomplishments: A team from a high school with 94 students played with Wyoming’s big schools and nearly pulled off a basketball championship run for the ages, finishing as the state’s runners-up during a magical week in March.
The second reason why the Pirates of 1949 are so special goes well beyond the scores of games played more than 70 years ago, stretching into communities and lives across the state and country. Of the 15 players in the team picture, three (plus a fourth freshman not in the photo) went on to become inductees into the inaugural class elected to the Wyoming Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Several others became coaches and educators in Wyoming. Also in the mix were boys would become an oceanographer, a doctor, a civic leader, a Naval weapons specialist and more — a collection of leaders who shaped countless lives. They were inspired by a coach who left a noticeable impression on their lives.
It seems odd that a team that would produce so many coaching legends would come from a town and a school with such little hardwood success. To put it bluntly, Reliance did not have a rich basketball history. Aside from trips to the state tournament in 1929 and 1930, when all teams no matter their record could play, the Pirates’ only other visit to state came in 1942, when the Pirates rallied from a first-round loss to win the consolation championship.
In 1948, the year before their memorable run at state, Reliance finished a paltry 11-14 but had shown promise in the regional tournament, upsetting Rawlins in the first round and nearly beating Kemmerer in a state play-in game before losing 33-32.
The following season, the Pirates had shown they were an improved team under coach Jack Smith, but they still looked far from championship material. Reliance was competitive during the regular season, finishing 14-9 and going 11-4 in conference play, good enough to finish second in the nine-team Class AA/A Southwest District. (Incidentally, the Pirates also played well at home, in a “crackerbox” gym that needed two 10-second lines because the court’s length was too short to be regulation.) Reliance reached state by finishing second in the Southwest District tournament; their one-point loss to top seed Rock Springs in the title game was proof, though, that the Pirates could play with the state’s best.
This realization came even though the Pirates were not blessed with the one thing that usually guarantees success in basketball, height. The starting five of senior Spiro Varras and juniors Stan Kouris, Bud Nelson, Michael Fresques and George Jelaco were built for hunching in coal mines, not posting up on the block.
“We were really small,” Nelson said. “We had one person that was over 6 feet tall. I was the center and I was 5-11.
“We didn’t have much height, but we had a lot of fight.”
The size of the school itself, not just its players, was another handicap, another one Reliance was determined to overcome.
With a senior class of 18 students and a 9-12 student body of 94 (according to a count from the school’s 1949 yearbook), the Pirates were one of the smallest schools in Wyoming’s Class A ranks. At the time, Wyoming basketball only had two classifications — A and B — as four-classification play with classes of AA, A, B and C was still three years away. The dividing line between Class A and Class B was an enrollment of 100 students. Riding the edge of that line, Reliance played against Wyoming’s biggest boys from its biggest schools, including some schools more than 10 times their size, despite having only double-digit numbers walking the halls.
In fact, John Fortuna, a senior on the 1949 team, said the Reliance superintendent probably lied in reporting the school’s enrollment to keep the Pirates in Class A.
But Reliance was used to the challenge, and they knew how to handle it.
“Most of what made our team click was aggressiveness and desire and to believe in that we could win,” Nelson said. “People will look at us and kind of laugh at us, like a car of midgets drove up to the basketball court… but we had the desire to win so much, that made up for us being so small.”
When the state tournament came around, that desire wasn’t yet on display for the state to see. Reliance wasn’t given much of a chance to get out of the first round, much less make a deep run.
Up first was Worland, which had finished third in the Northwest District tournament but had 19 victories on the season, including one against mighty Casper Natrona. The Pirates weren’t fazed; Fresques scored 12, Kouris 10 and Varras nine, and Reliance won 43-35.
Next up: Cheyenne.
This is where the dream had to end, right? After all, the Indians represented the state’s biggest school and, at the time, its biggest basketball dynasty.
Entering the 1949 season, Cheyenne and coach Okie Blanchard had won six of the past seven state basketball championships. The Indians had their struggles in 1949, sure, but still came into the game against Reliance with 18 victories, a Southeast District tournament championship, momentum from a 27-point first-round victory against Gillette and a student body significantly larger than that of the Pirates. (The 1949 Cheyenne yearbook shows 829 students in grades 10-12.)
The game wasn’t even close — and not in the way that most expected. Reliance dominated Cheyenne in every possible way. Kouris had 10 and Nelson, Varras and Jelaco had eight apiece, no Cheyenne player had more than five, and the Pirates won 44-27.
“They were much bigger, but we were quicker,” Varras said. “We pressed, and we had a bunch of guys that were just really tough. And the pressure got to (Cheyenne). Their coach told our coach later, ‘I’d trade two of our big guys for one of your scrappers.'”
That was the game that turned the state’s attention to the little team that could.
Now one of the final four, Reliance was among a set of giant-killers. Little-regarded Lusk beat Northwest District tournament champion Cody in the second round, while at the same time Lovell had beaten Rock Springs — the team that beat Reliance in the Southwest District title game. The only non-surprise among the final four teams was Casper (Natrona), which had consistently been one of the state’s best all season long.
The semifinals paired Reliance with Lusk and Lovell with Casper. But with mighty Cheyenne already vanquished, what were the Tigers? Once again, Reliance played above its size, Nelson scored 14 and the Pirates wiped out Lusk by 11, 39-28.
Just like that, little Reliance was in the state championship.
Casper’s 45-35 victory against Lovell set up one of the most unlikely of title pairings: the 22-4, big-school, big-town, we-belong-here Mustangs against the 19-10, small-school, small-town, we-belong-here-too Pirates.
Nelson said excitement for the Pirates had reached a frenzy back in the four coal camps of Reliance, Winton, Dines and Stansbury. Those who couldn’t make it to UW’s Half Acre Gym by car, train or bus for the championship still managed to keep up with the proceedings. Even the underground miners in Reliance’s coal mines kept in the know. Miners running hoists above ground would listen to the game on the radio and periodically write down the score of the game.
“They’d put (the scores) on the coal cars and run them down the mine, and (the miners) could keep up with the scores that way,” Nelson said.
The Pirates’ magic ran out in the championship, though, as a bigger and more physical Mustang team built a six-point halftime lead and won by 13, 49-36.
“They played a completely different ballgame than any other team we played,” Fortuna said. “They forced us to move the ball. … They just turned the tables on us.”
Regardless, Varras was named to the all-state team, the first time a Reliance player had been so honored. And the Pirates picked up all kinds of recognition for being the team to not only end Cheyenne’s title run but to reach the title game. The team came home with a big, golden basketball trophy for its runner-up finish, which was displayed proudly in the school trophy case, and Smith was named the state’s coach of the year.
Jim Rafferty, a junior on the runner-up team, said the reason for the Pirates’ success was a simple combination of the care and comfort the players had for and with each other: “We played together.”
However, the on-court magic ended there.
The 1950 team had the opposite experience of being the hunted, not the hunter; the Pirates finished 21-2 in the regular season and won the Southwest Conference regular-season title. Then it all crumbled down at the district tournament, where Reliance had the misfortune of losing their final two games of the season in the final two games. They didn’t even have the chance to repeat their run at state, failing to qualify and spending that weekend at home.
The 1952 and 1953 teams, now playing in Class A and avoiding run-ins with the likes of Cheyenne and Casper, each advanced to the state tournament semifinals but no further.
That’s the closest Reliance ever got to another title run. With a declining enrollment, the Pirates moved to Class B in 1955 and, not long after the Union Pacific coal mines near Reliance closed in early 1959, the high school closed later that year. Reliance went 4-16 in its final season of basketball.
Reliance, population 714, survives today, with the school remade into apartments. The nearby mining towns of Winton, Dines and Stansbury, whose youth also filled the halls of Reliance High and whose citizens emptied the town to come to a high school basketball tournament in Laramie in 1949, did not survive, as a handful of foundations is all that remains.
And Varras is curious what happened to the big, golden trophy.
“I don’t know where that went,” he said. “That would be nice to know.”
The true nature of the Pirates’ championship-game run wasn’t apparent for decades later, after it became clear just how special the group of young men on that team in Reliance truly was. To a man, each of them went on to lead successful, enriching lives. Many of them gave back to the sport by becoming coaches, educators or administrators. Others found success in other lines of work, such as engineering, medicine or military service. Many served as part of the U.S. military the Korean War. And they led the way for younger players who didn’t see the floor but saw the leadership in action and followed the path blazed in part by a dramatic championship-game appearance.
The team, and the fortunes that followed them, included:
- John Fortuna: Worked in the oil and gas industry for nearly a decade, then worked with the U.S. Postal Service in Rock Springs for 30 years. Lives in Rock Springs; age 91.
- Everett Hernandez: Became an engineer and had a 40-year career with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego; was also a youth baseball coach and taught math at San Diego State and San Diego Mesa College. Died 2017.
- Claude Thomas: Went to college at BYU and to medical school at Utah; was a practicing doctor in Utah for more than three decades, retiring in 1993. Died 2014.
- Spiro Varras: A WCA hall of famer, led Rock Springs’ basketball team to four state championships in 14 years as head coach and was a math teacher at the school. Lives in Rock Springs; age 91.
- Michael Fresques: According to Varras, Fresques was a Korean War hero, working as a medic and rescuing people from battlefields after injuries; he graduated with an engineering degree from UW in 1956; buried in Fort Logan National Cemetery in Colorado. Died 2006.
- George Jelaco: Was a teacher, coach and administrator in Rock Springs for close to three decades; he is a member of the Wyoming Sports Officials Association’s hall of fame. Died 2000.
- Stan Kouris: A basketball coach for six years at Rock Springs and at one time was the elected head of the Wyoming Coaches Association, a position Varras took over immediately after Kouris became an administrator at Rock Springs High; he later worked as a grocery manager and owner in Utah. Died 2021.
- Ernest “Ernie” Mecca: A 30-year member of the National Guard and civic leader in Sweetwater County, with accomplishments and memberships too numerous to mention, and was employed by Rocky Mountain Power; later became chief of staff to Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan. Died 2011.
- George “Bud” Nelson: A WCA hall of famer, he was a coach and administrator at Rock Springs and Cokeville as well as at Western Wyoming College, where he was the basketball coach; he was named the national athletic director of the year in 1989 while at Rock Springs. Lives in Rock Springs; age 91.
- Jim Rafferty: Worked in extraction industries, both coal and oil, until his official full retirement in 1988. Lives in Reliance; age 90.
- William “Bill” Strannigan: A WCA hall of famer, coached St. Stephens to a then-record 46-game winning streak and two state titles; was later activities director at Riverton for many years. Died 2012.
- Tony Tsakakis: Worked in the office of the lieutenant governor in Minnesota. Died 2020.
- Robert Burns: Graduated from UW in mechanical engineering; Nelson, his brother-in-law, said Burns spent his career working on space research and technology with Lockheed Martin. Died 2015.
- Walter Sawick: Graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Colorado; he served in the Navy and worked at Mare Island Naval shipyard and Concord Naval Weapons Station. Died 2010.
- Ronald Wilson: According to Nelson and Fortuna, Wilson went to pharmacy school at UW and later worked as a pharmacist in Texas. Lives in Amarillo, Texas.
And some freshmen who weren’t in the team picture went on to have an impact as educators and coaches in Wyoming:
- John Maffoni: An educator in Rawlins for 40 years, working up from teacher and coach — he was head football coach for six years — to administrator; he was the Rawlins High principal for nine years and the district superintendent for eight years. Lives in Rawlins.
- Jim Mecca: An educator throughout the Bighorn Basin, including time in Thermopolis, Burlington and Shoshoni both teaching and coaching; he later owned the Tepee Pools in Thermopolis and was involved with fundraising for Shriner’s Hospitals for Children. Died 2019.
- Jack Rafferty: A WCA hall of famer, was a coach and athletic director in Buffalo for many years, retiring in 1987; he was president of the Wyoming Coaches Association and led Buffalo to two state basketball championships. Died 2020.
Finally, senior manager Henry Telck also got into coaching; his specialty was youth baseball, where he eventually served as president of Rock Springs Little League. He, too, was a Korean War veteran, and he worked for 32 years for Mountain Fuel Supply. He died in 1997.
Meanwhile, the coaches of the team made their impacts beyond Reliance, too. Head coach Jack Smith — a graduate of Kemmerer and a former member of the UW basketball team — stayed on as the Pirates’ head coach through 1955. He later entered administration and became superintendent of Rock Springs schools, holding that position for 23 years. He died in 1999 at age 80.
His influence stoked the passion many of the Reliance players had for both sports and education.
“He was in World War II as a bomber pilot, and he just inspired all of us,” Varras said. “He was just that kind of person. I think that was one of the main reasons we all went into coaching. … We really felt that he was a good person and we tried to be the same way.”
Added Nelson, “He was a fundamental coach. He was a great coach that way, X’s and O’s, and he had a way with young people. … He was quite a man, and we all admired him.”
Assistant coach Thomas Manatos taught in Reliance and later in Rock Springs for 42 years. He also was the sports voice of the Tigers on the radio, broadcasting Rock Springs football and basketball games for almost 20 years. He died in 2004 at age 84.
Varras said Manatos was his inspiration to become a math teacher.
In Reliance’s case, success bred success. The success of the players after high school was no doubt related to the successes they already were, and the successes their families and community helped mold them into, with or without a couple victories in March.
Fortuna said the legacy of the team’s success was evident each of his 30 years delivering mail in Rock Springs, which was full of former residents of the closed coal camps.
“When I carried mail, the majority people knew me from playing ball in Reliance,” he said. ” … They knew all the players. It was like family.
” … It was just something that stuck with them all the time, that a little burg like we were could beat someone like Cheyenne.”
Box score photos courtesy of Bud Nelson.