Some saw the writing on the wall when the Campbell County School District allowed high school students to choose if they wanted to attend Gillette or the shiny new Thunder Basin. None, however, foresaw what would come of the once-mighty Camel football program.
Two full seasons after the introduction of Thunder Basin, Gillette has yet to win a game. The head coach overseeing the Camels in the new two-school era, Micah Christensen, tendered his resignation in January. With the announcement of his successor to come pending school board approval it’s worth noting just how vastly different the prestige of that position is compared to just two years ago.
The Camels have lost 19 consecutive games dating back to the 2016 state semifinal game, including the program’s first consecutive winless seasons since 1971-72.
“It was literally overnight,” former Gillette head coach John Scott told the Star-Tribune. “They lost that game and haven’t won a game since. They went from a team that was in the championship game to a team that had 80 points scored against them.”
Scott coached the Camels from 1995-2000, leading them to the state semifinals every year and two state championships. During his tenure he remembered the culture of the program and what the school did to win. He remembered upon being introduced as head coach, the school board told him that he could bring one assistant in of his choosing. Of course, that came after a 10-hour interview process that including meeting with parent and booster groups.
At the time of his hiring Gillette hadn’t won a football championship in nearly 30 years.
So, as Scott described it, they wanted to do what it took to build a winner.
“The first thing I wanted to do was build a better weight room and they didn’t bat an eye,” Scott said. “It was great. You look at things now with tighter budgets and that’s not really available now. You’re kind of a one-man show.”
Camel Stadium is due for an upgrade in field conditions, especially when contrasted with the new turf field at Thunder Basin. That’s an exact replica of conditions between the two schools and, at least in part, why students flocked to Thunder Basin, according to Scott.
“Kids these days are going to gravitate toward the new and improved,” he said. “They want the newest phones, newest whatever. It was a no-brainer for kids.”
Sources told the Star-Tribune that the school board, at the time, was under the impression that football players lower on the depth chart would stay at Gillette if the starting players went to Thunder Basin. That turned out to be another instance of adults not understanding the thought process and motives of teenagers. Instead, the returning all-state players made their choice known and the dominoes started to fall.
“Bottom line is I think people just like to win,” Wright head coach Larry Yeradi said. “You don’t worry where you are in the depth chart on a state championship team.”
Yeradi has spent decades in Wright, which is in the same school district as the two Gillette high schools.
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Every single returning starter for the Camels elected to go to Thunder Basin in the 2017 season, leaving the Camels with predominantly sophomores and freshmen. Vic Wilkerson resigned from head coaching duties at Gillette the summer before the 2017 season, citing his desire to watch his son, Keaton, who decided to play at Thunder Basin. That left the Camels to promote Christensen to head coach two months before the season began.
Some, like Scott, thought the vast migration to Thunder Basin left the Camels with junior varsity, and in some cases sub-junior varsity-level players. Others have compared Gillette’s current era to Cheyenne South, which started its football program with two years of junior varsity before beginning varsity play in 2011. South has made the playoffs once since and has won three games in the past two years — with two of those wins coming against the Camels.
“You look at when South started their school and how long it’s taken them to come to a competitive level,” Yeradi said. “It’s taken some time. And people have likened the Camels to the Bison. They gutted it and that’s the basis of what they’re building upon.”
Gillette has been outscored on average by 48.28 points in the past two seasons. Some of that can be contributed to the talent level, but those with ties to the program believe it has something to do with history.
The Camels thrived for years, at least in part, because they were the only program in town. With Gillette’s population and constant ties to energy, the school had no shortage of students from outdoors and athletic families. They made the state semifinals 21 times in the 22 seasons leading up to Thunder Basin’s arrival. And there was some resentment across the state for it.
“When you played Campbell County, because of the resources, people thought we were more entitled and whatnot,” Scott said. “If you had success it was expected. Teams thrived to beat you like no other just to say ‘We beat Campbell County.’ And when the bottom fell out nobody cared and there was no sympathy.”
For instance, Sheridan beat Gillette 72-7, Natrona County beat Gillette 76-6 and Kelly Walsh beat Gillette 86-6 in that first season. Also that first season, Thunder Basin beat Gillette 47-0. The Thunder Basin students cheered and sang during that first rivalry game, reinforcing a line that was previously blurred.
Some in town changed their allegiances to Thunder Basin while others remained loyal to the Camel purple and gold. And for some, that’s become a point of contention. Thunder Basin football coach Trent Pikula declined the Star-Tribune’s request for interview, citing the inner-town rivalry.
In any event, the Camels are left to rally with what they have. Scott believes that the program needs someone who has close ties to the program and can re-install Camel football culture. He went as far as to say that if the football coaching job came open a year earlier, he would have wanted a shot at coaching the Camels once again.
Reuniting the Gillette football program with its roots, Scott said, is the best way forward for the program, now a mere shell of its former self.
“The one thing you make known is Thunder Basin has the new stuff but they don’t have old stuff like tradition, and you can’t buy that,” he said. “Camel pride, Camel tradition, you have to reconnect to that.
“To be the guy to lead them back is a lot of great rewards but at the same time, is it the same place you would go into 25 years ago? Absolutely not.”