Fresh off a loss that pushed their season-opening winless streak into double digits, the Evanston boys’ basketball team found themselves at a crossroads as they boarded the bus home from a tournament in Cheyenne.
Lex Cornia — who stepped down as the Red Devils’ head coach earlier this week to accept a teaching position in his hometown of Randolph — pointed at that long bus ride home in early January as the turning point for a team that had yet to find an identity.
“That bus ride home from Cheyenne — at that point we were 0-10,” he explained. “I don’t know if we’ve had a darker moment in the program during the time I’ve been involved in it. But watching the guys and the way they handled it, I think that’s something I’ll always remember. They decided then and there that they’d had enough. I knew then that we’d be OK.”
The winless streak would reach one more game — a 48-43 loss to Mountain View in the Red Devils’ home opener — though what followed was a turnaround hardly anyone saw coming. Evanston went on to win 12 of the next 15 games, earning the No. 3 seed heading into state with a third-place finish at the 4A West Regional Tournament, held on their home floor.
The Red Devils’ hopes for a Cinderella run through the state tournament were dashed thanks to COVID-19, but that didn’t diminish what the team had accomplished during a crazy, unprecedented season, one in which the rest of the state had written them off early.
“It will always be that season of ‘What ifs’,” Cornia said. “But man, to begin the way that we did and end the way we did is something I’ll always take with me. I’m definitely proud of every team I’ve coached, but this year — despite it being the only team I coached that was under .500 — I’ve just never known a group of guys come together and battle and handle adversity the way that this group did.”
Unfortunately for fans, students and players alike, the 2019-20 academic year marks the final time Cornia will roam the sidelines as a coach or at the front of a classroom as an English teacher at EHS; an opportunity to return to his hometown and teach at his alma mater proved too tempting to turn down.
Brian Barker — the Red Devils’ head JV coach and Cornia’s varsity assistant for the past four seasons — is also stepping down after over two decades as a coach at EHS.
“It’s been in the works for a while,” Cornia said of his decision to accept the position in Randolph. “I put my letter [of resignation] in this last weekend. But today [Tuesday] has kind of taken me by surprise as far as the response. I think Brian and I have given a lot to this community, and the community has given a lot to us, as well. It’s not something we were looking forward to, but we’ve appreciated all the support from everybody — it says a lot about our town.”
Cornia said he didn’t know prior to the start of the season that 2019-20 would be his last; all 12 of his years as a teacher and coach have been spent in Uinta County School District No. 1, and he didn’t expect that to change.
“It took us by surprise, honestly,” Cornia said. “We were planning on doing my entire career here, but circumstances change. I think we’re doing what’s best for my family, but that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult to leave.”
The Red Devils compiled a 64-44 record in Cornia’s four seasons at the helm, including an impressive 25-5 record at home. His teams qualified for the state tournament in each of his four seasons, never finishing lower than fourth; his best season came in 2017-18, when the team went 21-5 (including a perfect 7-0 on their home court). Evanston won the 4A West Regional Championship that year and finished third at state, with Cornia and his coaching staff named as the 4A West Coaching Staff of the Year.
“That team was just such a talented group,” he said of the 2017-18 team. “It was fun to walk into gyms — and I think we’ve always had this — but to walk into gyms and know the other team hated to see us walk in. They didn’t like to play against us. That was not just a testament to them, but to all the teams I coached.”
A 2000 graduate of Rich High School, Cornia earned his undergraduate degree at Utah State University and his Master’s at Bard College in New York. He’s been with Uinta County District No. 1 for 12 years — nine at Davis Middle School and the last three at EHS.
Cornia began coaching football and middle school basketball shortly after his arrival in Evanston; he eventually caught on as a basketball coach at EHS, working as an assistant under former coach Joe Floyd for a season before taking over as head coach in 2016.
“I’m a product of Uinta 1,” Cornia explained. “I came here as a brand new teacher fresh out of college, and this place has kind of made me who I am. That’s something I’m always going to be grateful for. When I look back at the last 12 years in this district, that’s what makes it so difficult — the bonds and the friendships that you build with people.”
Asked what he’ll miss the most about coaching, Cornia said working with the kids tops the list.
“It’s the relationships that you build,” he said. “Coaching allows you to work with young people in a way that you just don’t get to in the classroom. The lights turn on Friday nights and everybody’s watching — you’ve gotta go and perform. Coaching puts you in situations where it allows you to build relationships that don’t typically happen.”
Red Devil senior David Baxter said it was Cornia’s willingness to connect with someone as both a player and an individual that made him a coach his players loved playing for.
“Coach Cornia is great because he connects with you personally and genuinely cares about your development not only as a basketball player, but as a person,” Baxter said. “He leads by example, and I’ve learned so much about who I am and who I want to be because of him. Playing for him and coach Barker and the years that I spent playing basketball here have left a huge impact on me and who I will become.”
While the decision to step down from EHS and relocate to Randolph is with the full support of his family, Cornia said it wasn’t easy breaking the news; he counts his wife and kids among the Red Devils’ biggest fans.
“My kids have grown up looking forward to the time when they’d be Red Devils, like Mason [Ellingford] and Dawson [Crofts] and David [Baxter] and all the great players we’ve had come through,” Cornia explained. “I’d like to thank my wife Lisa, and my family; many people sacrificed for this team but [my family’s] are behind the scenes...no one has given more to the success of Evanston basketball than my family.”
As for what he’ll miss most about EHS and the community, Cornia said the us-against-them mentality of the team, coupled with the unyielding support of its fan base, has made taking on the state’s larger schools year in and year out a special experience.
“I think part of it is just the nature of our town — we’re a high school of 700 kids that has to build teams to compete with schools that have 1,800 to 2,200 kids,” he said. We’re looking uphill, there’s a chip on our shoulder, we’re blue-collar, we’re underdogs. It was a ‘Nobody thinks we can do this but us’ type of mindset that you don’t get in Casper or Cheyenne, because they’re always the biggest. That was something that always appealed to me about this program — I loved the mentality of ‘We might be outnumbered, but we won’t be outfought.’”
In six meetings against perennial powerhouse Cheyenne Central, Cornia’s Red Devils posted a 5-1 record.
Evanston was a combined 6-3 in the last three state tournaments, with upset wins against some of the top programs in the state.
“We sent teams home from that tournament, teams like Cheyenne East and Kelly Walsh — teams that honestly Evanston had no business sending home,” he recalled. “But we’ve been doing it — not just under my tenure — we’ve been doing it for years. That’s something you don’t get everywhere, and something I’ll definitely miss.”
Cornia said he takes the most pride in how his teams played during the final consolation games of the state tournament, when a state title was no longer a possibility.
“You’re just playing in those games where it’s about your love for the game,” he explained.
“You’re no longer playing for a state championship, so it becomes about community pride, love for your teammates and love for the game. Those are the moments I’m definitely most proud of.”
Though he hasn’t ruled out a return to the sidelines at some point, Cornia said he and his family are content for now to take the time needed to adjust to a new town, a new school and a new opportunity.
“I’ve got young kids, and they’re doing traveling basketball — it would be nice to coach them,” he said. “I don’t know, we’ll see. I know you kind of get pegged in this job after you’ve done it for a while — people see you as a coach. It’s definitely a possibility.”
Cornia is excited to be returning to his old stomping grounds, a place he credits for helping him become the teacher he is today.
“Going back to Rich is exciting,” he said. “In many ways, Evanston was like Rich as far as the high work ethic of students and tight knit community. I had great respect for my teachers while I was there as a student, they impacted my life greatly, and it’s an honor to be there now teaching with them.”
That said, the community of Evanston, and his experience as a teacher and coach in Uinta County District No. 1, will always hold a special place in Cornia’s heart.
“It wasn’t always perfect, but we always had the best intentions when it came to kids and basketball and representing Evanston,” he said. “I just hope that during my 12 years in the district, I’ve impacted those around me as positively as they’ve impacted me.”