Current Kelly Walsh classmates Hallie Jimenez, Jamia Johnson and Madison Vinich sat at the undersized cafeteria tables of Dean Morgan Middle School and reminisced. Jimenez and Vinich both went to Dean Morgan as students and analyzed the room’s differences. There were little.
Jimenez and Vinich commented on how the old, red drapes and curtains across the stage had not been replaced in the previous decade as Marquel Gibson entered the room. The four then started talking about differences in basketball practices. Bre Kelly, a Natrona County teammate of Gibson, quietly sat beside Johnson and listened in.
All five recounted a story about how one old teammate forgot her basketball shoes so she attempted to practice in slippers, as Kristy Dick sat down next to Gibson. Once Gibson clued her into what story was being told, Dick joined the audience.
None of them said it but that cafeteria may have been the final setting for all six to sit in nostalgia. Years earlier they were all incredibly close friends bonded by countless hours together, most notably as members of Casper Mountain Basketball. Chance brought them all together for a friendship forged for over a decade.
The idea for multiple girls’ traveling basketball teams materialized when Paul Jimenez, Hallie’s father, started to put together open gyms every Sunday under the moniker of Casper Mountain Basketball. Bre, Hallie and Jamia already played basketball together in the YMCA leagues so forming a bigger club basketball entity became the next logical step.
With enough adults signed on to help coach, the 6-year old children practiced outside of the usual first-grader’s routine. The core group of Jimenez, Johnson and Kelly, who had been friends for a few years by that point, only melded closer with more time together.
Mutual friend Katie Mayhue then brought Gibson into practice. Shortly after that, Vinich moved to Casper from Lander. Her family knew Gibson’s family and the two spent time together going to the same elementary school. One day during class, Gibson told Vinich about her basketball team. Vinich quickly joined the group.
“We were all goofy girls that didn’t really fit in anywhere in first grade,” Vinich said.
Johnson moved away in the fall of their third-grade year, denting the core three. Jimenez and Kelly welcomed Gibson and Vinich immediately.
“We had more people on the team and most of them had dads who moved a lot of places,” Jimenez said. “So having them, we were really welcoming. They were nice and we were nice. We liked each other.”
In the spring of that following year, just months after Johnson moved away to Arizona, she moved back and rejoined the team. The addition of Vinich and Gibson improved the small squad. Johnson’s return only further bolstered their abilities.
“It started becoming a real team,” Johnson recalled. “It was a really fast transition between not knowing these people to being good.”
The final piece
Kayla Dick used to pole vault for Paul Jimenez at Natrona County. She had graduated when she brought her third-grade little sister Kristy to the state track meet. Kristy had always been much taller than her peers. A third-grade graduation photo would reveal no classmate’s head standing higher on her than armpit level.
Jimenez did not know this.
“Who is your sister,” he asked Kayla.”What is she, seventh grade?”
Kristy informed him that she was, in fact, only in third grade — the same age as his daughter, Hallie. Incredulous, Jimenez responded with a follow-up question:
“Do you want to play on our basketball team?” he asked.
Apprehension about her coordination made her pause. After all, she wanted to be a dancer but an attempted pirouette on the family’s bar sent a bar stool sailing across the room, denting the refrigerator.
Still, she had previously played YMCA basketball and agreed to join. That following summer before fourth grade, her mother drove her to the first practice at Manor Heights elementary and stayed throughout. Dick, surprised by how much fun she had, recounted the practice on the ride home.
“I got acne before everyone else,” Dick said. “I was the first one that had to wear a bra and I remember sobbing about it, going through all of that early in life when I didn’t really have anyone else to talk to about it and I had those girls there. Some of them went through it with me and feeling like I was the odd person out.
“I could be me and be crazy because they were just as crazy as I was.”
They were nearly unstoppable on the court and inseparable off it. All of them even played on the same club volleyball team during basketball’s off-season.
The team played together for a total of seven years, traveling around the region and beating opponents. They went on a Globetrotter-esque tour of Wyoming, Montana and Colorado playing basketball. They even won a national tournament in Las Vegas when they were in sixth grade.
“Everyone knew us and we smacked everybody,” Johnson said. “It was a good time.”
A decision, however, awaited. Most of the girls had talked about going to Dean Morgan together. That was where Johnson enrolled in classes before suddenly changing her mind two days before classes. Instead, she wanted to go to Centennial because she knew she wanted to attend Kelly Walsh down the line.
Dick, meanwhile, enrolled at Casper Classical Academy so she could stay in a smaller class size. She also had a less permanent, more diverse group of friends she wanted to follow to middle school.
The remaining group enrolled at Dean Morgan, where they played basketball for the Comets. They played against Johnson and Centennial in the middle school season while remaining teammates for Casper Mountain Basketball. Despite the small hurdles, they remained friends and kept an active group text message thread when not at practice together.
“We knew that certain people were going to go to different places,” Gibson said. “It’s just something we grew to understand and realize and made the best of the time we had.”
The group’s time together culminated at a Denver basketball tournament. There they faced the same traveling Colorado team that beat them numerous times before. This one, however, ended differently as Casper Mountain Basketball led by 10 throughout and won.
“That’s where Jamia got her first technical,” Jimenez remembered.
It was a fitting end to their club basketball lives together before choosing high schools.
Paul Jimenez applied for the vacant head coaching position at Kelly Walsh. That’s where Johnson knew she wanted to go. Vinich and Jimenez knew they would go there as well. It was agreed upon in the group that if Hallie’s dad got the job, they’d all go to Kelly Walsh.
Ultimately, Jimenez didn’t get the position and the group split down the middle — Johnson, Jimenez and Vinich going to Kelly Walsh while Gibson, Kelly and Dick went to Natrona County.
“It was kind of devastating that we couldn’t be together,” Vinich said, “but at the same time it was nice to be separated because where would we be at now?”
Added Jimenez: “It was just kind of depressing because I wanted to play with them and we’d be really good.”
Casper Mountain Basketball disbanded when high school priorities took over. Then came Peach Baskets and other obligations. Gibson found soccer, Johnson excelled in track while Vinich, Kelly and Dick all grew to love volleyball.
Emily Applegate, who also played with the six through the years, dropped basketball in favor of playing tennis at Kelly Walsh. Mayhue continued to play basketball at Natrona County before transferring to South Albany, Oregon, after her sophomore season.
Friendships among the remaining six solidified. Kelly and Johnson hang out at family summer barbecues. Johnson, Vinich, Dick and Jimenez were teammates in a 3-on-3 basketball tournament before their junior years. They united once again to defeat a team from Gillette.
All six grew up together and, over time, have leaned on each other when needed.
“They’re considered family now,” Johnson said.
Added Vinich: “It’s just kind of devastating that we’re never going to have that chance in our lives again.”
Meanwhile, the group of young women gave that awkward, pirouetting third-grader a place to belong.
“I’m never going to remember what the score was,” Dick said. “I’m going to remember these girls and the stupid stuff we did in practice and the stupid games we played in the hotels. I’ll remember these girls for the rest of my life.”