The numbers aren't pretty:
• 14 years without a winning season.
• 35 straight losses from 2008-12, the most in the history of Wyoming football.
• 3 head coaching changes in three seasons.
First-year head coach Corey Wheeler entered the 2014 season at the helm of a Rawlins program pitted against a recent tradition of ineptitude. The once-proud team had failed to register a record above .500 since its championship season in 2000, when Rawlins finished 9-0 under head coach John Hilim.
In the 14 years that followed, the Outlaws never finished a season with more than two wins. The losses piled up with no end in sight. Rawlins was the laughing stock of Class 3A, which made revising everything an easy solution to the team’s problems for Wheeler.
Change was needed, and Wheeler, an all-state member of Cheyenne Central's 2005 championship team, decided he was the man to bring it.
“Everything’s different. You name it, it’s different,” said Wheeler, 27, who took over as head coach last February after spending 2013 as an assistant coach. “You got to respect what’s happened, but at the same time that hasn’t worked. We made up our minds and said that this is how we were going to do things this year, and we haven’t looked back.”
Five games into the 2014 season, the Outlaws are 3-2, having already won more games in a single year since that 2000 championship team. It’s a grand achievement for Rawlins, at least the Rawlins teams of the past, but not for Wheeler.
Wheeler has spent his early tenure as head coach attempting to transition the Outlaws out of their pursuit toward mediocrity. Average is no longer good enough.
The goal is a championship, and while that might be a leap, it’s a welcomed target for a program recently unfamiliar with such aspirations. The journey toward prominence has started for the Outlaws, and like many great football teams, the first step began by securing its quarterback.
Corey Wheeler entrusted his team in an eighth grader. Scratch that. Wheeler entrusted his team in a former eighth-grade standout who hadn’t played football in two years.
Junior Jace Allard elected to play golf as a freshman and sophomore, his love for the sport outweighing his interest in playing for a perennial football bottomfeeder.
The indifference attached to football around Rawlins was both incomprehensible and unacceptable to Wheeler. The best athletes in school should be playing on Friday nights, he thought, not spending afternoons on the links.
Wheeler, Allard's sophomore gym teacher, immediately plotted to lure Allard back to football upon his hiring, repeatedly probing him of his interest to play. Wheeler went as far as to tailor his curriculum so that Allard would have opportunities to throw the football around and regain his interest in the game.
Allard was the target of a 1-2 recruiting punch every day in school, first attending assistant coach Scott Muir’s American history class in fourth period before going off to Wheeler for fifth period. Then the two coaches would convene for lunch and discuss where their future quarterback’s interest stood.
“’What did he say today? What did he say?’” Muir said, recalling the conversations. “We kept baiting him into it, kept after him.”
The two coaches even challenged him to a round of golf, with Allard’s commitment to football serving as the prize should they win.
That wager was ultimately unnecessary, with the coaches’ persistence winning out. Allard has rewarded their resolve by leading Class 3A this year with 251.6 passing yards per game, completing 58 percent of his passes and 15 touchdowns versus eight interceptions.
He passed for 404 yards and five touchdowns in the Outlaws’ 35-28 victory over Green River and nearly led Rawlins to an upset win last week against Riverton, completing 26 of 42 pass for 347 yards and three touchdowns in the Wolverines’ 41-37 come-from-behind victory.
“It was depressing seeing my friends go through that,” Allard said of his time as a golfer. “To play this year and win some games and send some seniors out with some wins is pretty special.”
Allard’s return has allowed Wheeler to employ one of the most complex offenses in the state, earning the title of “offensive genius” from Muir, a running back on the Outlaw's 2000 championship team.
With Allard at quarterback, Wheeler can play Jalen Krening, the team's leading rusher last season as the Outlaws' quarterback, to a more suitable position at running back. It also affords Allard the opportunity to properly distribute the ball to receivers like senior Isaac Jefferson, who leads Class 3A with 124 receiving yards per game and seven touchdowns.
“It’s way better this year. You can just tell when you walk into the locker room,” Jefferson said. “These kids want to play football, they want to be better, they want to win. In past years, it was a big fiasco. Kids were messing around and stuff. There’s none of that this year.”
The Outlaws will need Allard to have perhaps his best game yet on Friday against Douglas, which poses a multitude of matchup problems. The Bearcats are physical, disciplined and fast, featuring players like defensive end Bay Parks, a 5-foot-11, 220 pound senior who will be a handful for a Rawlins team featuring just one lineman weighing over 200 pounds.
“Douglas is probably the scariest team anyone wants to face in 3A, in my opinion,” Wheeler said. “You can’t get away with things you can get away with against these other teams. They’ve built a tradition and they expect to win every Friday night.”
It’s the type of tradition Wheeler is attempting to build at Rawlins, and one that seems closer and closer to becoming a reality.
Rawlins cemented its first three-win season since 2000 on Sept. 26 with a 27-7 victory over Buffalo. The Outlaws responded with jubilation in the postgame locker room, seniors screaming in excitement on account of having won more games in one season than the three previous combined.
Wheeler allowed his team four minutes of celebration before eliminating the party atmosphere. He informed his team of how mundane their accomplishment truly was.
“If you’re happy and content, turn in your pads now, because we don’t need you,” Wheeler said to his team. “We’ll take who wants to keep pushing and fighting for the ultimate goal.”
Wheeler is in the process of teaching his team about the terrors associated with complacency. Great teams, Wheeler has preached, strive for more than regular-season success.
Any coach can reach for championships. However, the challenge is ensuring that his players are accountable, that they remain relentless in their pursuit of something more.
“Not everybody understands, but we’re not just coaching football right now,” Wheeler said. “We’re trying to change a tradition that’s been set back 15 years. I can’t imagine there are too many coaches in the state pushing their kids harder than we do.
“But we have to. We have to be mentally and physically stronger to compete at this level.”
Rawlins nearly executed Wheelers’ vision last week against Riverton, holding the ball and the lead with four minutes left against one the best teams in Class 3A before losing a fumble in Riverton territory.
Riverton responded by driving 70 yards and scoring with 45 seconds left for a comeback victory.
There was no cause for celebration after the game like there had been against Buffalo. The Outlaws were defeated. The game had been in their grasp, and just as quickly it was gone.
“You guys are a real football team,” he said in the postgame locker room, focusing on his seniors, who had never been in a position to pull off such an upset. “Now you guys know. You can compete. Remember how it feels, and hopefully it never happens again.”
Rawlins is in the midst of a transformation, with Wheeler leading the charge to reverse a culture of losing.
The hurt in his team’s eyes after the loss to Riverton said it all. No longer are the Outlaws content with pedestrian showings. They want to be great, and against Douglas on Friday, they will face a team in possession of what it wants -- expectations of winning every game, of accumulating championships -- and attempt to take it from them.