This was the Riverton team that stormed through the first two months of the season.
This was the Riverton team that went 8-0 against Class 4A teams and – from Jan. 13 to Jan. 28 – won six games by an average margin of victory of 35.3 points per game.
Saturday in the title game of the Wyoming State High School Class 3A Boys Basketball Championship, those in attendance at the Casper Events Center got to see those Wolverines.
Riverton trailed Worland 6-5 before going on a 19-0 run and rolling to a 62-34 victory over the defending state champs to win the program’s first state title.
“We just ran out of gas,” Worland coach Aaron Abel said, “but they’re a great team. I think they were due for a game like this. Unfortunately, it happened to come against us.”
The Wolverines might not have been a team of destiny, but this was a team constructed to win a state championship.
All five starters in the championship game – Brady Fullerton, Teron Doebele, Easton Paxton, Kyren Higgs and Kylan Shultz – were seniors. Those five, along with senior reserves Alec Richardson and Kole Lone Bear, had been playing together for years. Save for Lone Bear, the seniors had been on the same traveling team for as long as they could remember.
“This all started in third grade with our AAU team,” Fullerton said. “This is what we wanted. This is what we worked for.
“This season we expected a lot out of each other and we held each other to higher standards so we could get it done.”
They did, in impressive fashion.
Shultz led the way with 14 points in the championship game, with Paxton and Doebele pitching in 13 apiece. And 6-foot-8 junior Soloman VanDellen, who had scored just 15 points all season, made three consecutive baskets during the Wolverines’ early run and finished with eight points.
VanDellen proved to be a more-than-adequate fill-in for 6-5 junior Ridge McCoy, who suffered a knee injury at the regional tournament and was unable to play.
“To be totally honest, I was absolutely terrified coming into this weekend,” said VanDellen, who moved to Riverton prior to the season after spending the past two years at rival Lander. “I can’t even explain the feelings I had. Coach was explaining to me that I was going to play a big part and to be able to do that was hard for me to swallow.
“It took a couple of games for me to figure that out.”
Any questions as to how Riverton (28-1) would respond at state without McCoy and coming off its first loss of the season – a 51-50 loss to Lyman in the West Regional championship game – were answered in the Wolverines’ opening game. Riverton held Rawlins to 15 points through the first three quarters on its way to a 59-32 victory.
“After the setback we had at regionals I was just impressed with their ability and willingness to come back,” head coach Stuart Mullins said.
The loss to Lyman put the Wolverines on the same side of the bracket as East Regional champ Douglas, which had pushed Riverton to the brink back on Dec. 17 before losing in overtime.
After Douglas won a 50-45 overtime thriller against Mountain View in the quarterfinals, the stage was set for Riverton-Douglas Round 2 in the semifinals.
It didn’t disappoint.
In front of a standing room only crowd at Casper College’s Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym, Paxton hit a clutch 3-pointer and made 3 of 4 free throws, all in the final 35 seconds, to help the Wolverines pull out an emotional 52-49 victory.
After surviving that, Riverton was more than ready to take on Worland.
“I think we got a lot of nerves out of the way (Friday),” Fullerton said.
When the final seconds ticked away Saturday, the Riverton faithful roared their approval and the players rushed the court. This was the moment the Wolverines had been working toward for years.
For Doebele, it was reminiscent of a similar scene nine years ago when he watched his older brother Max win a Class 1A state championship with Encampment.
“I was sitting right there,” Doebele said, pointing to a spot in the Events Center bleachers. “I ran down here and celebrated with him. And now he’s here celebrating with me.
“We always knew we could win a state championship when we got to high school,” he added. “And once we became sophomores and juniors we knew it was a real possibility, it wasn’t just something that we were thinking about.”