It happened once before

Legacy of the 1935-36 basketball season

The 1A and 2A teams around the state were fortunate to have their state tourney at Casper during the initial weekend of March.  A week later, Coronavirus 19 precautions led to the cancellation of the 3A/4A state tourney, just as it began.  A “new normal” currently exists, with distance learning replacing classroom instruction and typical springtime events like track, skip days, soccer, prom, golf and graduation rites becoming possible casualties to the calendar.  Members of the class of 2020 endure the greatest disappointment, seeing their senior year wind down to a less-than-spectacular end.  Yet those circumstances are not totally unique.

Folk born over a century ago faced the same reality during the 1935-36 school year, especially those from the graduating class of 1936.  Both the boys and girls basketball tourneys were cancelled by health concerns.  Sound familiar?

The beginnings of a full-blown health crisis started in December of 1935.  A scarlet fever outbreak in the southeast corner of the state closed several small schools.  The little town of Veteran closed schools for three weeks that month while others in the locality did likewise for shorter spans of time.  After Christmas Day, the city of Cheyenne banned all school children—grades K through junior high—from public gatherings until January 6th; no church, movies or parties, a homebound holiday break.  Scarlet fever spread statewide through the early months of 1936 (along with outbreaks of measles, mumps and even smallpox) and school closings occurred in an expanse of Wyoming schools from Big Piney to Gillette to even Lusk.  Sadly, several deaths of schoolchildren occurred—usually from scarlet fever—and public health officials began to step up their authority.

At this time Wyoming played ALL high school basketball in one division—no 1A, 2A, etc.—within five districts around the state.   Each district sent the three top teams to the state tourney, with one added at-large team to fill out a 16-team bracket.  Two healthier districts, the southwest and the northwest had already played their tourneys.  (Lusk played within the east central grouping, facing schools with tiny enrollments like Shawnee or Glendo as well as the state’s largest school, Natrona County High in Casper.)  Three districts—the northeast, southeast and east central—were ordered by the State Board of Health to cancel their tourneys.  Additionally, the state tourney in Casper (boys) and Lingle (girls) were cancelled.  End of story, correct?

Well, not quite.  The legendary coach of the best team in the state (and defending state champion with a 19 wins and 1 loss record) Rock Springs Tigers’, C. H. ‘Okie’ Blanchard, tried to organize an invitational pseudo-state tourney, inviting eight teams from around the state to the Tigers’ lair.  Thermopolis, Cheyenne, Rawlins and Worland were all set to join Rock Springs, but the other three teams to vie for the ersatz state title were never named.  Why?  Because state health officials rallied forces to put the kibosh on the whole deal, saying the Board of Health’s order was the final word and there could be no inter-district play between schools.

Basketball during the 1930s for Lusk High School boys wasn’t all that successful as the Tiger teams from late 1931 on won less than half of their games during the decade.  The snakebit 1935-36 team, however, chalked up an impressive 15-5 mark—the decade’s best—and would probably have made the trip to Natrona County High School as one of the 16 best teams in the state.  The girls’ state tourney in Lingle was always an all-comers affair, and Lusk would’ve certainly attended (Manville High, too, for that matter.)  However, due to events beyond their control, Lusk hoopsters were denied the chance to play.

There are instances in other years of seasons being cancelled.  For example, the Lusk’s 1932 football season was shuttered, for financial reasons brought on by the Great Depression.  The Class B basketball tourney—Wyoming began two classifications in the 1940s—was cancelled in 1942 for wartime travel restrictions (although the bigger Class A schools were able to state theirs –not fair!)  During WWII, the Korean War and in Vietnam, many high school seniors nationwide answered their nation’s call to serve and passed on the chance to graduate with their classmates.  So the circumstances aren’t entirely unique as other classes and individuals faced challenges, too.

To members of the class of 2020:  Thanks for your sacrifices made, both during the past month and for the uncertain number of weeks to follow.  The community is a much safer place and the well-being of those most vulnerable to the pandemic is made more secure by what you’ve had to give up.  When the time is right and it’s safe for groups to gather again, one would wager #14 county will celebrate your graduation in grand style.  Stay safe, your community still cheers you on, albeit from afar.


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