The Natrona County football team needed to get back on track. Coming off a 2-8 season in 2009 — the program’s first losing season since 1992 — the seniors on the 2010 team came up with a radical idea, at least as far as Wyoming high school football was concerned.
“It started on a whim,” Cole Montgomery, a senior on that team, said recently. “We just kind of floated the idea out there and it went from there.”
The idea was for the Mustangs to hold their first practice of the 2010 season at the earliest allowable time. So at 12:01 a.m. on Aug. 9, 2010, the Natrona County seniors sat in the bleachers at Cheney Alumni Field and listened to head coach Steve Harshman. While the rest of the Class 4A players and coaches were likely sleeping in anticipation of holding their first practice later that Monday morning, the Mustangs were about to take part in their first Midnight Madness practice.
“Our motto was to be the first ones on (the field) and the last ones off,” Montgomery recalled.
The practice itself involved little more than running from one goal line to the other and back before breaking off into groups with their position coaches. The coaches explained to the seniors what they would be doing in a few hours when the rest of the team joined them for the Mustangs’ first full practice of the 2010 season.
“I just remember being out there under the lights with the music playing,” said Montgomery, who is currently an Investment Specialist at First Interstate Bank in Casper. “It was refreshing to get back out there and get rid of that sour taste from that ’09 season. We had a new sound system and the music was blaring.”
After Harshman called players and coaches together at midfield for one last pep talk, everyone left the stadium and reconvened in the weight room to watch Kenny Chesney’s “Boys of Fall,” a music video about, what else, the joys of playing high school football.
Fast forward to 12:01 a.m. on Aug. 12, 2019, and this year’s Natrona County seniors went through basically the same Midnight Madness practice, albeit with a couple of changes. For one, the players divided up into teams and tried to drive to the end zone from the 40-yard line. And at the start of the practice, as Harshman addressed this year’s senior class, he told the story of how Montgomery had approached him 10 years ago about holding that first Midnight Madness.
Montgomery refuses to take full credit, however.
“I want to say that us seniors were talking about it and Coach Harshman was walking by and caught wind of it,” Montgomery said. “He started asking about it and then he asked if we were serious about it and we said, ‘Sure! Let’s do it.’”
Unbeknownst to Montgomery and his classmates at the time, that first Midnight Madness was not only the beginning of a tradition, but it also marked a return to glory for the Natrona County football team.
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Not only had the 2009 team finished with a losing record, but the Mustangs had won just one state championship (2005) and played in just two title games the previous decade. From 2000-09 Natrona County was 63-35 overall, but just 8-9 in the playoffs.
That all changed beginning with the 2010 season as the Mustangs went 11-1 and defeated Sheridan in the state championship game.
“I think winning the state championship that year made (Midnight Madness) a little more impactful,” Montgomery said. “If we hadn’t won it I don’t know if it would have been as meaningful. That practice kind of flips everybody’s attention to football for that season and gives you a common goal to achieve.”
The Mustangs continued on their upward trajectory the rest of the decade. They were undefeated in both 2012 and ’14, won four state championships (2010, ’12, ’14 and last year) and went 88-18 overall and 20-5 in the playoffs.
(Sheridan went 87-18 overall, 19-5 in the playoffs and also won four state titles the past 10 years. Cheyenne East was the only other 4A school to win a state championship in the decade, defeating Natrona County in the 2013 title game.)
Not surprisingly, Harshman and his assistants have embraced the Mustangs’ Midnight Madness.
“The big thing is to get these seniors ready because that whole mentor role they have is a big deal,” Harshman said. “We want to be efficient and hit the ground running. Years and years ago it was a rite of passage thing, but now that has been flipped on its head and now it’s all about mentorship.”
Montgomery said he “had to laugh” when word got out that Harshman was still bringing his name up when talking about that first Midnight Madness practice. Neither Montgomery nor his teammates had any idea of the effect their decision would continue to have 10 years later.
“I think with a lot of things like that you don’t think it’s going to have a lasting impact until it does,” Montgomery said. “It was just something that me and my friends and teammates went all in on and it turned out being something special.
“It’s nice to leave your mark on something like that, especially with NC football because it’s been a dynasty before us and after us as well. It’s nice to put your fingerprint on something.”