June 27 will mark two years since the Northern Wyoming Community College District cut all athletic programs aside from rodeo at Gillette and Sheridan colleges.
Men’s basketball, women’s basketball, men’s soccer and women’s soccer were all axed in a cost-cutting move largely brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Both basketball programs started in 2009 and both soccer programs started in 2017.
Five days after the programs were cut, Gillette residents put together a plan to fund sports at Gillette College for the 2020-21 school year with private dollars while also working toward a longer-term solution. They presented the proposal at a July meeting in Sheridan, but the college district board didn’t accept it, partly because it only addressed Gillette College and didn’t include Sheridan College.
Less than a month after the budget cuts, Campbell County Commissioners put together a task force to help form a new community college district and submitted an application to the Wyoming Community College Commission.
Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, introduced a bill to form an independent community college district in Campbell County. The bill passed through the legislature during that spring session in 2021.
The decision to form a new community college district came down to a special election in Campbell County last August. Voters overwhelmingly approved the separation from the NWCCD by a 4,160 to 1,724 margin (70%) during the election.
Thirteen days before the two-year anniversary of the budget cuts, the newly formed Gillette Community College District unanimously approved their inaugural $16.2 million budget Wednesday.
The budget — the board’s first since separating from Sheridan— allocates 6% of the $16.2 million budget for athletics, or just under $1 million. The budget also includes the introduction of volleyball for the first time.
After 717 days of having just one sports program at the college, five Pronghorn teams will return to competition starting in the fall of 2023.
Shawn Neary is the winningest men’s basketball coach in Gillette College history. In 11 seasons, he won 75% of the games he coached.
Neary leads the program in every statistical coaching category for men’s basketball. That’s because he’s the only men’s basketball coach in Gillette College history.
Neary was hired in 2008 and coached in the school’s inaugural season in 2009-10. During the program’s inaugural season in 2009-10, he immediately put a winning product on the court. The first Pronghorn team posted a record of 18-12, then made the jump to 24-7 its second year.
In 2014-15, the Pronghorns finished as the No. 9 ranked team (27-8) in the country and were even better the following year. The 2015-16 season was the best of Neary’s career with the Pronghorns finishing 35-2 and at No. 3 at the NJCAA tournament. It was the best finish at nationals for a Region IX team since 1963.
The Pronghorns made it to the national tournament again the next year, winning one game and losing one in the Sweet 16 to finish at 32-4. Since then, Gillette College has an overall record of 68-27. Neary’s final record at Gillette College reads as 268-70 (.750).
Neary — along with the rest of the basketball and soccer coaches at the college — was fired unexpectedly after the budget cuts were announced. He’s spent the last two seasons coaching different college teams in the region.
He first joined the Montana State University Billings men’s basketball program as a volunteer assistant for the 2020-21 season. After spending a year as an assistant, Neary was hired as the head coach for Williston State College in North Dakota.
Neary led the team to a 8-23 record during his first season with the Tetons. But his first season would also be his last with the team after he resigned last week.
The biggest factor in his decision to step down was the possibility of taking over the Gillette College men’s basketball program for the second time in his career.
“It’s a great achievement in a lot of ways,” Neary said about the college trustees approving their first budget. “It just goes to show a community came together to pass a tax to support their own community college which is almost unheard of and Gillette elected a board that put together a really good budget.”
The next thing on the agenda for the new district is to hire an athletic director, interim president of the district Janell Oberlander said. The athletic director will then do a national search to hire a head coach for each of the five new sports.
Neary knows nothing is guaranteed, but he hopes his résumé speaks for itself.
“Hopefully whoever they hire (as an athletic director) will have some idea of the past successes of the programs,” Neary said. “Hopefully they’ll also understand the circumstances of why those coaches are no longer coaching there. But I’m going to go through the process just like any other applicant.”
Neary isn’t going to be the only familiar face applying for his old job. Liz Lewis spent one season as the Pronghorn women’s basketball coach before being fired when her team was cut from the school.
In her first and only season with Gillette, the team finished ranked No. 21 in the National Junior College Athletic Association rankings.
Rather than seeking another coaching opportunity elsewhere, Lewis stayed in Gillette. For the last two years, her and former assistant coach Janie Rayback organizing have coached youth basketball after the Wyoming Youth Basketball Association. Like Neary, Lewis is excited for the opportunity to apply for her old job at Gillette College.
“After we were cut, I had the chance to move on but I stayed because I love Gillette and I love the area,” Lewis said. “I’m very excited to see sports back for sure. It’s been something that I’ve been waiting for for a very long time.”
Both Neary and Lewis described the last two year’s of their lives as a weird lapse of time. With no sports at Gillette College, both former coaches had to look elsewhere for both entertainment and employment.
But with the return of the school’s basketball and soccer programs as well as the introduction of a volleyball team, the future of the college and the Gillette community as a whole is looking bright, Neary said. That’s what led him to moving back to Gillette.
“Once it looked like Gillette College was going to approve the budget and they were going to include athletics in their budget, I just felt like it was better for me to concentrate on coming back to Gillette to be in our community again,” Neary said . “I just want to be in a position where I can apply and interview and hopefully get my old job back when it opens.”
The path ahead
Oberlander expects the new district to hire an athletic director in August or September. The position is a new position that was not at the college before the budget cuts in 2020.
The athletic director would hire coaches who would begin working early next year. The teams will play in the same conference they competed in prior to the split, the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Region IX district in Division I.
Fall 2023 marks the earliest return of team competition.
“I think what’s most exciting is to continue providing post-secondary education in our community,” Oberlander said. “It’s now our ability to make these decisions for our community. The community has really driven us to be able to make these decisions.”
Josh McGrath, a GCCD trustee, is looking forward to spending nights and weekends watching Gillette College compete in basketball and soccer again. He’s just as excited to be able to watch the college compete in volleyball for the first time.
“People really enjoyed going to the games and I think they truly missed it. I know I did,” McGrath said. “I think this is just one more step for Gillette College becoming its own entity. … Everyone can root for the Pronghorns.”
Rodeo program restored
The Gillette College rodeo program was the only sports team to survive to budget cuts in 2020. But that doesn’t mean the program was left unscathed.
Will LaDuke has been the school’s only head coach for the rodeo program since its inception in 2006. His job was slashed from full-time to part-time with the budget cuts in 2020.
GCCD’s inaugural budget includes bumping the head coach position back to a full-time gig, Oberlander said.
“What this does is makes our rodeo program whole again,” Oberlander said. “This restores that (head coaching) position back to a full-time position and it also brings scholarships back for our teams. I know coach LaDuke is very excited and he’ll be able to continue to build strong teams in the future.”