The Natrona County boys basketball team opened the 2014-15 season with a 78-36 loss to defending state champion Gillette. Four months later those same Mustangs were holding aloft the state championship trophy after a 46-43 victory over the Camels.
That state championship was one of the most unexpected this decade and it was also one of the most memorable for Natrona County’s Shawn Gillum, who decided earlier this month to step away after 10 seasons leading the Mustangs.
“It’s time to explore other opportunities,” Gillum said. “I’m going to take some time off and enjoy my family.
“But I’m not done coaching ... I think I’m pretty good at this.”
Gillum, who will stay on as the freshman physical education teacher at Natrona County High School, finished with an overall record of 114-137, winning a Class 4A state title in his first year (2009-10) to go along with the 2014-15 championship. The Mustangs struggled the past four seasons, however, going 26-68 and twice failing to qualify for state.
Gillum’s doesn’t believe his legacy should be defined by the Mustangs’ recent struggles, though.
“Our record wasn’t great, but we had great kids,” he said. “We had rodeo kids, baseball kids, football kids. ... And all those kids played a role.
“There were 609 kids we worked with during my 10 years and I’m most proud of the relationships I was able to build with those kids,” he added. “I feel like I learned something from each of them and hopefully I had an impact on their lives. Because at the end of the day it all comes down to the relationships I had with the kids.”
Stevann Brown, the starting point guard on that 2014-15 championship team, thinks that Gillum was the perfect coach for that year’s Mustangs. Natrona County went undefeated in winning the 2014 state football championship and had edged Laramie by 0.5 points to win the state indoor track title one week prior to the state basketball tournament.
Following a 62-55 overtime loss to Riverton on March 7, 2015, the Mustangs’ record stood at 9-9.
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“That was really an up-and-down season,” said Brown, who is currently a fifth-year senior running back at Chadron State College. “We had a group of seniors that had all grown up together, and we all had a great deal of respect for Coach Gillum. He was the epitome of a players’ coach because he believed in us. I applaud him for all he did.”
As for Gillum, that team will always hold a special place in his heart. After all, it was a team whose starting lineup consisted of Parker Browning and, basically, four football players who happened to play basketball in the winter. Pete Bergman, Josh Harshman, Logan Wilson and Brown were all Star-Tribune Super 25 selections and all four went on to play college football — Brown at Chadron State, Bergman at Eastern Michigan and Harshman and Wilson at Wyoming.
“Both state championships were very cool experiences in the moment,” Gillum said. “And that (2014-15) title was special because nobody expected it but the guys in the locker room.”
Added Brown: “That season was really crazy. I still talk to kids at (Chadron State) about it.”
Natrona County’s other state championship under Gillum following the 2009-10 season also was unexpected. While the Mustangs entered that season as the defending state champions, they returned just two reserves from the title team.
But the Mustangs recovered from a 3-8 start to win 16 consecutive games, capped by a 55-47 defeat of previously unbeaten Gillette in the state championship game.
And, because of construction the past few years at Natrona County, Gillum also has the distinction of coaching in three different home venues.
“I got to close the Orange Dungeon,” he said of Natrona County’s original gym that was demolished after the 2013-14 season. “And then I got to open and close the (Mustangs Activities Complex) and then I got to coach in Jerry Dalton Gym.”
Gillum expects to take this next year to “recharge his batteries” before seriously looking at other coaching opportunities.
“I’m going to take some time off to spend more time with my family,” he said. “And then I think I’ll be ready to see what’s out there.”