Fittingly, the ball was in Antonio Coando’s hands at the end of Saturday’s Wyoming State High School Class 3A Basketball Championship game at the Casper Events Center.
As the clock wound down to triple zeroes, Lander’s senior do-everything guard held the ball near midcourt as his teammates began to celebrate. When the final horn sounded in the Tigers’ 58-40 victory over Powell, Coando held onto the ball as his teammates rushed the court. He handed the ball to an official and bent over, burying his head in his jersey, overcome with emotion.
“That meant everything to me,” Coando said after the game while holding the championship trophy. “It was a picture-perfect moment and one I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”
It also was a moment that would have been hard to imagine a year ago – for Coando and for Lander (24-4). The 6-foot guard averaged a team-high 17.9 points per game last season, but shot just 28 percent from behind the arc and had more 3-point attempts than the next four players on the Tigers’ roster combined. Lander went 16-12 on the season, but 1-2 at the state tournament.
This year Coando’s scoring average was down to 13.5 points per game, but he made 38 percent of his 3-pointers and his other numbers also improved.
“We started at a different place two years ago from today with Antonio’s style of play,” said second-year Lander head coach Stu Mullins. “Just the shaping and the molding that he had to do, not only as a basketball player, but as a person and as a teammate.
“So for all that he went through I might have teared up when I gave him a hug because it’s been a long road for him and he just kept asking questions and trying to get better.”
Added Coando: “I just had to put in the time, put in the work and put in the practice and then see what would happen my senior year. And when I got this opportunity I just had to take advantage of it.”
That was true not only for Coando, but for senior teammates Max Mazurie, Conrad Swenson, Mason Cronk and Conor Jay. All four were starters on the Tigers football team that finished 4-5 under first-year coach John Scott and qualified for the playoffs after winning just one game in each of the previous two years. Mazurie and Swenson both earned all-state honors this season.
“A lot has changed in Lander the last three years,” said Mazurie, the Tigers’ starting point guard and quarterback, “but we always had a lot of talent.
“This year we bought into what Mullins wanted us to do and we just had to get followers. And these underclassmen bought into it and that’s why we became successful.”
It was Lander’s fourth victory of the season over Northwest Conference rival Powell and the program’s first state championship since 2008.
Mullins, who coached Fremont County rival Riverton to the 2017 3A state championship before taking over at Lander, where he and his family live, believed the Tigers would be successful, just not right away.
“It was a challenge every single day to really get these guys to come together as a team,” he said. “We started to do it at the end of the season, so for that work and that effort to pay off means the world.
“I think everybody in the community is in a state of shock because this kind of came quickly. But I think they’re excited and the longer it goes the more it will sink in. We have a lot of great sports and activities in our school and now we can add basketball to that.”
And it was all possible because Coando made the difficult transition from scorer to team player and the rest of his classmates established themselves as leaders.
“We’ve been fantasizing about this moment ever since seventh grade when we started playing basketball together,” Coando said. “It was within reach our senior year, we just had to put the blood, sweat and tears into this game. It shows that hard work really pays off.”
After taking a Riverton team loaded with seniors to the title two years ago, Mullins knows the value of leadership. Saturday, he got to see it firsthand again at the same venue.
“Obviously it means a lot to those seniors because those guys are Lander guys that have been together since middle school,” he said. “Maybe they’re not the most talented bunch, but the leadership they provided this year was unbelievable.”