Note: This is the seventh and final in a series of stories about some of Wyoming’s biggest high school sports underdogs.
Kemmerer’s boys basketball came into the 1977 Class A West Regional tournament after an 8-10 regular season that was beset with injury and inconsistency.
Somehow, the Rangers won three straight at regionals and carried that momentum to win three straight at state, a six-game run that no one expected, least of all the Rangers.
The Rangers played well against good teams but struggled against not-so-good teams, said John Scott, who was a senior on the team and now is the head football coach at Lander.
“We rode the tides,” Scott said. “When things were up, we looked great, but when they were down we looked terrible.”
The team was also adjusting to new coach Glenn Murray, who came to Kemmerer straight after college after growing up in Potsdam, New York. Previously, the Rangers had been coached by Vince Guinta and Todd Dayton, two hall-of-fame coaches in their own right who were in many ways opposites in their approaches — Guinta in-your-face, Dayton composed.
Murray fused the talent and the coaching styles to get the most from his players in Kemmerer. However, that fusion didn’t come until the postseason.
Entering the regional tournament, the Rangers knew they could play well, but Scott said “it wasn’t like we said, ‘Hey, this is our last chance,’ any of those ‘Hoosier’-type stories.”
Instead, the Rangers didn’t over-think, and Murray didn’t over-coach. Kemmerer won three straight, beating a two-loss Lovell team in the semifinals and then handing defending Class A champion Star Valley its first loss to a Wyoming team that season in the championship.
“And then we’re the regional champs, regional champs at 11-10,” Scott said. “I think it was the first time all year we were over .500.”
Even after winning the West Regional, Kemmerer was still an underdog.
Glenrock entered the tournament at 19-1 and was, along with defending champion Star Valley, the pre-tournament favorite.
Kemmerer drew Buffalo in the first round, playing a game that started at 10 p.m. in the university’s Fieldhouse in Laramie. The Rangers started slow and trailed by eight midway through the third quarter. Then Kemmerer kicked into gear, using a full-court press to rally and win 65-60.
The Rangers played Lovell, again at 10 p.m., in the semis, a rematch of the regional semifinal. Lovell was a tough draw, as the Bulldogs were the only team to beat Glenrock during the regular season and were keen on some revenge after losing to the Rangers the previous week. And it showed, as — much like what happened the night before against Buffalo — Lovell built a 10-point lead during the late stages of the third quarter.
Again, Kemmerer rallied, pressing the Bulldogs into defensive oblivion and winning 72-65.
Clearly, the Rangers were peaking at the right time. But the biggest challenge was yet to come; Glenrock, as expected, awaited in the championship.
Scott said he recalled stepping onto the court at the UW Fieldhouse for that title game with a decided lack of certainty.
“They’re warming up and they’re really sleek-looking,” he said. ” … They all wore a boutonniere on their warmup and they just looked really confident.”
But that uncertainty quickly turned into motivation. After seeing the Herders on the other side of half-court, “I think we just kind of felt we had nothing to lose,” Scott said.
The championship game, another 10 p.m. Fieldhouse start, was the opposite of the first two games, with Kemmerer jumping out early and Glenrock rallying in the third quarter. The Herders crept within three, but Kemmerer continued its trend of playing its best when it mattered most. Thanks to clutch foul shooting and a stalwart defensive effort, the Rangers held off the Herders, 70-59.
Just like that, the team that had stumbled to an 8-10 regular-season record was the Class A champion. The Kemmerer team was one of only a small handful of Wyoming basketball teams to have a losing record in the regular season only to win a state championship.
So what changed?
The first was health.
Mark Dolar was the leading scorer for the Rangers in each of their tournament games, scoring 22 in the title game. He had 21 in the semifinals and 22 in the opening round. Injuries, including to Dolar, dogged the team in the regular season, but by regionals everyone was healthy.
Aside from the health of the team, Scott also said the team’s mentality changed once winning became the priority. When the Rangers won, they did so as a team; when the Rangers lost, they looked at their individual play.
“Those (individual) things kind of always took precedence when we were losing… and (the mentality) was, ‘Well, at least I scored this many,'” he said.
To date, it’s Kemmerer’s only state basketball championship, boys or girls.
Scott, now the head football coach at Lander after a few stops around the state and some time as the head coach at Black Hills State, said the players from that championship team remain close 45 years later.
“As a coach, I think that’s why those championships really do mean so much,” Scott said. “It’s not the on-field stuff. It’s afterward. … We still own that (championship). It’s ours. That’s the aftermath of what you tell a kid and why you (commit)… Whether it’s (a 3A championship) or the Super Bowl.”