June 27 marks two years since the Northern Wyoming Community College District cut all non-rodeo athletic programs at Gillette and Sheridan Colleges.
Men’s basketball, women’s basketball, men’s soccer, and women’s soccer have all been cut due to cost cuts driven in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Both basketball programs began in 2009 and both football programs began in 2017.
Five days after programs were cut, Gillette residents put together a plan to fund Gillette College sports for the 2020-21 academic year with private dollars while working to find a long-term solution. They presented the proposal at a July meeting in Sheridan, but the college district council did not accept it, in part because it only applied to Gillette College and did not include Sheridan College.
Less than a month after the budget cuts, Campbell County commissioners assembled a task force to help form a new community college district and filed an application with the Wyoming Community College Commission.
Senator Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, introduced a bill to create an independent community college district in Campbell County. The bill passed through the legislature in the spring 2021 session.
The decision to create a new community college district was made in a special election in Campbell County last August. Voters overwhelmingly approved secession from the NWCCD by a margin of 4,160 to 1,724 (70%) during the election.
Thirteen days before the two-year anniversary of the budget cuts, the newly formed Gillette Community College District on Wednesday unanimously approved its first budget of $16.2 million.
The budget – the first board since splitting from Sheridan – allocates 6% of the $16.2 million budget to athletics, or just under $1 million. The budget also includes the introduction of volleyball for the first time.
After 717 days of just one college athletic program, the five pronghorn teams will return to competition starting in the fall of 2023.
Sean Neary is the best men’s basketball coach in the history of Gillette College. In 11 seasons, he won 75% of the games he coached.
Neary leads the program in all statistical men’s basketball coaching categories. This is because he is the only men’s basketball coach in the history of Gillette College.
Neary was hired in 2008 and coached the school’s first season in 2009–10. During the program’s first season in 2009-10, he immediately put a winning product on the court. The first Pronghorn team posted an 18-12 record and then jumped to 24-7 in their second year.
In the 2014-15 season, the Pronghorns were ranked 9th (27-8) in the country and were even better the following year. Neary’s 2015–16 season was the best season of Neary’s career, with the Pronghorns finishing 35–2 for 3rd seed at the NJCAA Tournament. This was the best result in the national championships for a Region IX team since 1963.
The following year, the Pronghorns again entered the national tournament, winning one game and losing one in the Sweet 16, finishing 32-4. Since then, Gillette College has an overall record of 68-27. Neary’s final record at Gillette College is 268–70 (.750).
Neary – along with the rest of the basketball and college football coaches – was unexpectedly fired after the budget cuts were announced. He has spent the last two seasons coaching various college teams in the region.
He first joined the Montana State University Billings men’s basketball program as a volunteer assistant during the 2020–21 season. After a year as an assistant, Neary was hired as head coach at Williston State College in North Dakota.
Neary led the team to an 8-23 record during his first season with the Tetons. But his first season will also be his last with the team after he retired last week.
The most important factor in his decision to retire was the opportunity to take over the Gillette College men’s basketball program for the second time in his career.
“This is a great achievement in many ways,” Neary said of the college trustees’ approval of its first budget. “It just shows that the community came together to pass a tax to support their own college, which is almost unheard of, and Gillette elected a council that made a really good budget.”
The next item on the new district’s agenda is the hiring of an athletic director, Acting District President Janelle Oberlander said. The athletic director will then conduct a national search to hire a head coach for each of the five new sports.
Neary knows nothing is guaranteed, but he hopes his resume speaks for itself.
“Hopefully whoever they hire (as athletic director) will have some insight into the past success of the programs,” Neary said. “Hopefully they will also understand why these coaches don’t coach there anymore. But I’m going to go through the process just like any other applicant.”
Neary won’t be the only familiar face claiming his old job. Liz Lewis spent one season as the coach of the Pronghorn women’s basketball team before she was fired when her team was expelled from school.
In their first and only season with Gillette, the team was ranked #21 by the National Junior College Athletic Association.
Instead of looking for another opportunity to train elsewhere, Lewis stayed at Gillette. For the past two years, she and former assistant coach Janie Rayback have coached youth basketball after organizing the Wyoming Youth Basketball Association. Like Neary, Lewis is excited about the opportunity to take her old job at Gillette College.
“After we were made redundant, I had the option to leave, but I stayed because I love Gillette and I love the area,” Lewis said. “I am very happy to see the sport again. It was something I had been waiting for a very long time.”
Both Neary and Lewis have described the last two years of their lives as an odd span of time. Since there was no sports at Gillette College, both former coaches had to look elsewhere for fun and work.
But with the return of basketball and football programs to the school, and the introduction of a volleyball team, the future of the college and the Gillette community as a whole looks bright, Neary said. This is what made him return to Gillette.
“After it became clear that Gillette College was going to approve the budget and they were going to include sports in their budget, I just felt like I had better focus on getting back to Gillette to be in our community again,” said Neary. . “I just want to be able to apply, get interviewed, and hopefully get back to my old job when it opens.”
The way forward
Oberlander expects the new county to hire a sports director in August or September. This is a new position that the college did not have prior to the 2020 budget cuts.
The sports director will hire coaches who will start working early next year. The teams will play in the same conference they competed in before the split, in Division I National Junior College Athletic Association District IX.
Fall 2023 marks the earliest return of tag team competition.
“I think the most exciting thing is to continue to provide higher education in our community,” said Oberlander. “Now it is our opportunity to make these decisions for our community. The community really pushed us to make those decisions.”
Josh McGrath, Trustee of the GCCD, looks forward to spending his nights and weekends watching Gillette College basketball and football competitions. He is also excited to be able to see college volleyball for the first time.
“People really enjoyed going to the games and I think they really missed them. I know I knew,” McGrath said. “I think this is another step towards making Gillette College a standalone enterprise. … Everyone can cheer for the Pronghorns.”
Rodeo program restored
The Gillette College Rodeo Program was the only sports team to survive the 2020 budget cuts. But this does not mean that the program remained unscathed.
Will LaDuke has been the school’s sole head coach for the rodeo program since its inception in 2006. His work has been reduced from full-time to part-time due to budget cuts in 2020.
According to Oberländer, GCCD’s initial budget includes the return of the full-time head coach position.
“It makes our rodeo program complete again,” said Oberländer. “This will return this position (head coach) to a full-time position and also return scholarships for our teams. I know Coach LaDuke is very excited to continue building strong teams in the future.”