Haize Fornstrom exited Pine Bluffs’ makeshift locker room in a cement hallway of the Casper Events Center after Saturday’s Wyoming State High School Class 2A Boys Basketball Championship game with a pristine basketball net hung around his neck. The Hornets’ senior was the facilitating starting point guard when they won their previous state championship at the culmination of his sophomore season — this time around he was the star.
He and his senior teammates went out on top in their final basketball game, 73-68 over budding rival Wind River. The previous two seasons the teams had eliminated each other from the tournament to achieve state championship glory.
Pine Bluffs won the first meeting, 56-50, to give the program its first title since 1983. After a loss to Fremont County-rival Wyoming Indian in the regional final the following year put Wind River and the Hornets on the same side of the bracket, they met in the semifinals. A Cougars’ comeback forced overtime, where they found redemption for the previous season’s loss – and eventually won the state championship.
When the two entered this year’s tournament on opposite sides of the bracket, the hype surrounding a third post-season battle began. But as Pine Bluffs head coach Tyler Kimzey said during the celebration, that matchup could have easily become hypothetical.
“We could have easily tripped up against Upton or Big Piney,” the Hornets’ first-year coach said. “They could have tripped up against Wright or Rocky (Mountain) last night. It’s survive and advance.
“I’m just happy for the kids. They worked their tails off this year, some of them for four years, and hopefully that trend continues.”
Despite the talk around Fornstrom, who signed his letter of intent as a preferred football walk-on at the University of Wyoming just a month prior, the Hornets got along without him initially on Saturday. He did not register a shot in the opening quarter. Meanwhile, Tucker Norman, Michael Shain and Justus Golding paced the Hornets’ offense and kept them level with Wind River’s fast-paced offense at the end of the first quarter.
Jayin and Jarrick Trumbull were two main cogs in the 2017 championship Wind River machine. Those two, along with point guard Dalton Finley, were again a handful Saturday with their driving and outside shooting. It wasn’t until Jayin left the game with a knee injury halfway through the second quarter that one team took more than a five-point lead. He eventually returned for the second half, but Pine Bluffs had surged to a nine-point lead by that point.
The Hornets outscored Wind River 22-13 in the second quarter, almost essentially by doing what the Cougars do well.
“We knew we were good shooters so we worked on getting up and down the court and making easy passes in transition, passing up good shots for great shots,” Kimzey said. “And I felt like we did that.”
Pine Bluffs went up by as much as 12 in the second half until Wind River battled back. Finely sank an NBA-range 3 to stir the crowd while Ashley Addison hit back-to-back 3s late in the third quarter. That cut the Hornets’ lead to four points until Fornstrom sank a 3 at the buzzer. He briefly paused with his arm out as the ball went through the net and the Cougar faithful felt the momentum slip away.
“We kept saying to calm the storm,” Shain said. “We knew they were going to go on a run like that but if we just stayed under control and hit some free throws then we’d win the game.”
The battle continued until the final buzzer. Jayin, who had grimaced throughout the second half and was clearly hampered by the knee injury, hunched over. Jarrick, a returning all-state selection, fell to the court. Finley, who had a team-high 20 points, stared through the packed seats of the Events Center. Wind River summoned everything it could and came up short.
“It’s always a great game,” Fornstrom said. “Everybody’s hyped up for it, it brings out the best in everybody and a lot of energy into the gym.”
The Hornets embraced their fans before the award ceremony. Fornstrom held his 9-year old cousin up, who was in tears as the two hugged. Norman laughed and hugged everyone within reach. Kimzey then rallied the team into the locker room briefly, its dense cement walls not able to contain the cheers. Yelps of joy echoed through the Events Center’s bowels.
The 2016 state championship was unexpected and indescribable. Last year’s semifinal loss confirmed that a title could not be taken for granted. And after winning a state championship in football this fall, the Hornets sought to overcome their previous misstep and regain the gold standard.
These Hornets were fairly young as well. Norman, Colby Lamb, Andrew Fornstrom and Brad Schmidl are all juniors. Shain and 3-point shooting partner Golding are sophomores. They’ll all make Pine Bluffs a favorite to return to Casper next year.
But for Haize Fornstrom and Wyatt Fornstrom, Saturday’s title game was a fitting end.
“My freshman year there was no way I would have imagined we’d win football and basketball in the same year,” Haize said. “It’s just wonderful.”