After an 0-11 start to the 2019-20 season, the Evanston High School boys’ basketball team found themselves on the cusp of something special — having battled back from that shaky start to win 12 of their next 15 games, the Red Devils defied the odds and qualified for a state tournament berth.
But any aspirations of a Cinderella run in Casper were derailed by the outbreak of COVID-19. The tournament was canceled, and with it the hopes and dreams of teams across the state. Many of the teams — including Evanston — were en route to Casper when the decision was made.
Red Devil senior Carson Wall — a junior on that squad — remembers that day vividly.
“We stopped in Rawlins for a shoot-around on the way to Casper, and that’s when we got the news that the tournament had been canceled,” Wall explained in an interview this past summer. “They brought us in, and we were all crying, just hugging everyone up. It was a sad day.”
Fellow senior Braxton Lind called that day a memorable one — for all the wrong reasons.
“I will never forget that day,” he said earlier this fall. “We sat in that Rawlins gym and got the news. I’ve never seen that many emotional guys in one room. It was crazy — and it was heartbreaking.”
Fast forward nine months, and the Red Devils will have a new look heading into the 2020-21 season. All-State players Mason Ellingford and Dawson Crofts are gone to graduation, as are David Baxter and Casey Periman; head coach Lex Cornia is also gone, replaced by new head coach Rob Watsabaugh, formerly an assistant for the Wyoming Cowboys.
Evanston returns six players from its 2019-20 squad, which finished the season 12-14. Among them are a pair of starters — Lind and Burke Thomas, who averaged 6.9 and 7.0 points per game, respectively. Other seniors include Wall, Jagger Mitchell, Stetson Wiedrich and Wade Bowen.
The Red Devils begin their 2020-21 campaign on the road this weekend, beginning with Sheridan on Thursday, followed by the REMAX Tournament in Gillette Friday and Saturday. First-year coach Watsabaugh said the first two weeks of practice have gone well, despite COVID protocols and restrictions.
“It’s been good — we’re working hard and getting after it,” Watsabaugh said. “We’ve been going in the mornings and the afternoon. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we want to kind of set the tone and the culture for the year with our guys. With a new system, we have a lot to do in a short amount of time.”
Watsabaugh said he’s been pleased by the work ethic and leadership of his six seniors, whom he credits with making the transition to a new coach a smooth one.
“Jagger Mitchell has a good work ethic, and Braxton Lind has shown some characteristics of being a sound basketball player,” Watsabaugh said. “Stetson Weidrich is also a hard worker, along with Carson Wall and Burke Thomas. They’re all hungry, especially after what happened last year with the cancellation of the state tournament. They’re chomping at the bit, wanting to get back into it.”
“Every senior we have has stepped up in some way,” he added. “I give them credit for stepping up — I’ve liked the energy and work ethic they’ve brought to practices.”
The new coach is also excited about the potential shown by his juniors and underclassmen.
“We’ve had a good turnout from our junior class,” he said. “I’m impressed with our sophomores, and I’m keeping an eye on the freshmen, we have some good numbers there. All around, I really do like the basketball IQ and talent, and the steps that can be made to grow the next few years.”
That said, there is still plenty of work to be done.
“We’re progressing,” Watsabaugh said. “We still have a lot to do. I think we’re taking steps in the right direction every day. But it will be a lot of firsts for this team. There are two or three kids that saw some varsity minutes last year, but for most of them, it will be a big change to playing up at that varsity level. And it will be my first time watching them truly compete.”
Learning a new system can be tricky, but Watsabaugh said his team is adjusting well. Defense will be key to the team’s success.
“What I really want them to understand is how to play defense the right way,” Watsabaugh said. “Learn to play man-to-man defense — we’re going to play as a team defensively. I just want to be a hard-nosed team — tough, loud, we value the basketball. I tell them every day, ‘You have to be ready to work, and you have to be ready to get better, every single day.’”
This season will be unprecedented in several ways due to the pandemic, not the least of which will be in practice. Because of restrictions in place, teams aren’t allowed to scrimmage more than 10 minutes per practice, making real-game situations difficult to duplicate.
“We’re still trying to figure out the best way to run real-game scenarios and still follow protocol and keep everyone healthy,” Watsabaugh said. “That’s really been one of our bigger challenges — figuring out how hard we can hit it and stay within the guidelines. We want to do our part with staying healthy and safe, and not being shut down. We hope the rest of the state is doing the same thing, because we all want to have a full basketball season. That’s our goal.”
Off-the-court work will also be a challenge, but one Watsabaugh is looking forward to as the new head coach.
“Obviously, I’m very, very excited to be a head coach,” he said. “Especially here in Evanston, where basketball has a good, strong tradition and great community backing. I’m very excited about that. There’s a lot that goes into it — there’s a lot to do, with travel and logistics, and sorting through the COVID requirements. We have to be as creative as possible with our practice plans, figuring out as a staff the best way to do that.”
The Red Devils’ opening weekend will be a true test, squaring off against three teams currently ranked in WyoPrep’s pre-season Top 5. Evanston opened the season against No. 3 Sheridan Thursday, the team they were scheduled to play in the opening round of the 4A State Tournament last March. The Red Devils play No. 2 Thunder Basin in the opening round of the REMAX Tourney Friday; Saturday’s opponent is No. 5 Gillette.
“It will be a grind, for sure, right out of the gate,” Watsabaugh said about the Red Devils’ opening weekend. “Not just mentally and physically for our guys, but three games when they haven’t played since March. I have a little bit of an idea of how they play, but we’re also very limited in practice with what we’re allowed to do when it comes to scrimmaging. Watching the team come together — how we fit, how we work, where we sit defensively — will be important this weekend.”