CASPER, Wyo. — The only kind of football Koye Gilbert knew involved getting in the car and traveling to Saratoga. He'd never represented his hometown of Encampment on the gridiron. Neither had any of his peers nor the generation that preceded them.
Encampment and Saratoga co-opted a football team due to Encampment's low participation numbers for years. That meant Encampment students played football at Saratoga while representing their hometown Tigers in all other sports. But when Gilbert's freshman season was canceled because -- even with Encampment students -- Saratoga didn't have enough healthy kids to field an 11-man football team, he thought of an alternative.
At that time there were more kids from Encampment playing for the Panthers than Saratoga natives anyway. Encampment teacher and track coach Kegan Wilford even coached the team. Encampment had the athletes, having played in two straight state basketball semifinals.
Gilbert pondered all of that over dinner one night. At that point, he had wanted to play football his entire life. It's his favorite sport. And having to sit out the previous season due to forces beyond anyone's control got to him. He felt his freshman season had been taken away from him.
"Why can't we have our own team?'" Gilbert wondered aloud. "We've got enough kids to field a team."
He turned to fellow Encampment standout Dalton Peterson for help. Peterson, in addition to being a young leader on the basketball team, carried the gravitas of an ambitious and noteworthy family around Encampment. The community's always respected the Petersons, even the younger ones. The two formulated a plan and informally brought it to the school board. In that conversation the two high schoolers heard the logistics: "What it would take, what we could do, and what they could provide," as Gilbert put it.
Encampment didn't have the money to fund a new program. The small school canceled the football program after just three seasons from 1988-90 because they didn't have the kids. Even before that the school only had football in 1956-57. So the heavy lifting of creating a football program had to be done outside the school. Travel to games and related expenses would be covered, but everything else had to come from elsewhere. The kids wanted to represent Encampment in football so they went to work making that happen.
Gilbert, Peterson and their idealistic Tiger teammates went to private donors. If there's one thing that's kept the town of about 430 in business it's been the families that love Southern Wyoming and refused to go anywhere else. Most of those Encampment graduates reverted back to the family ranch. So there's some wealthy farming Encampment alumni around that never had the opportunity to play high school football. Gilbert and Peterson discovered that those ranchers romanticized Friday night lights just as much as anyone else. A handful of them decided to invest in building a football program.
A Bar A Ranch showed its support early. The nearly 100,000-acre guest ranch East of town made a sizable donation and brought legitimacy to the cause. With A Bar A's support, the community knew this was a serious push for high school football instead of an otherwise admirable cause doomed to fizzle out. Several prospective football players repaid the ranch by raking leaves on weekends.
"It wasn't close to what they gave us but we were so thankful for the opportunity," Peterson said. "That's kind of our big thing because all we wanted was a chance. A chance to play football for the Tigers and put ourselves on the map."
That message resonated with more donors and within weeks the team raised enough to cover expenses. Suddenly the rumor mill churned with near certainty. The boys went back to the school board having accomplished their mission. They proudly stood at attention when the board approved starting a football team in Encampment, independent of any nearby school, for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Encampment activities director Clint Bromley stared out at the school's football field on the same morning the Wyoming High School Activities Association heard the school's request to add football. That field, sitting just behind the school, went largely unused since it last hosted a football game. That left wildlife to blissfully graze on the large plot of grass for decades.
"Even the PE class wouldn't go near it," Wilford, the school's PE teacher, said. "I would never go near that."
The WHSAA approved Encampment's motion to add 6-man football, meaning something had to be done about that field.
First the team resurfaced it. All those uneven patches went under a new layer of top soil. Because it's all natural grass, then came the seeding and another layer of soil. The old relics needed to be buried in order to start new again.
Finally, because the field was originally built with full football dimensions, the team needed to re-size it to suit its smaller 6-man football future. In came the new goal posts and field markers.
The new field saw its first paint job since 1990 on Aug. 21. All of the Encampment players who made the team possible witnessed the final touches come together. Admittedly, it wasn't state of the art. But while schools across the country received video boards, digital scoreboards, artificial turf and renovated grandstands, this team simply wanted a field they could play on.
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"There's still a couple rough spots but it's still playable and definitely better than what it was," Peterson said. "Nobody will break an ankle trying to run on it anymore."
The field wasn't the only thing that needed adjusting. Wilford, who called the coaching job a "no-brainer," had never coached 6-man football before. He learned which formations worked with the team's talent and which formations were illegal. Those players who had football experience only knew the 11-man game as well. So they needed adjusting to the game's speed.
The first few practices brought their rough points. There were bad snaps, bad pitches, missed tackles and penalties. Trust the process, they told themselves. It took nearly 30 years for football's return to Encampment. This too, they reiterated, needed time.
"It's the big process of learning how to play 6-man football and about half of our team has never played football of any kind anyway," Wilford said. "From a coaching standpoint, learning how to play the game and getting the players up to speed on the whole process has been tough."
Encampment started its 2019 all-junior varsity season on the road against varsity 6-man teams left widowed by Ten Sleep's canceled season. That brought the team's only loss thus far, a 26-point defeat to defending champion Farson (its most competitive game since early October 2018). Then the varsity opponents filled their schedules, leaving Encampment to play sub-varsity teams from Natrona County and Cheyenne East. The eager Tigers happily took the field anyway. All they wanted was the chance.
A groundskeeper casually laid down yard markers along Natrona County's Cheney Alumni Field for a midweek afternoon kickoff. The Encampment Tigers calmly walked from their temporary locker room to their temporary sidelines. There were only 13 of them, not including a teammate in an arm sling. Their uniforms -- black pants, white tops, black helmets -- were largely unstained.
The team went through warm-ups, preparing for its arranged game against one of Natrona County's freshman teams. A dozen Encampment fans found the metal bleachers behind the team's bench. Hours North of a more vibrant downtown, the Tigers faithful made the trek to support their new team. One of them, Koye and Kagan Gilbert's grandfather, made the trip from Pine Bluffs. Another of them, current Casper College student Wyatt Cox, walked up to the sideline and lent his support.
Cox was one of the many from Encampment who played football at Saratoga. Peterson, who usually wore No. 20, heard Cox planned on attending and wore his former teammate's No. 40 as homage. Cox told former teammate Reid Schroeder there was no way he would miss seeing the Encampment Tigers play football.
"It would have meant a little more playing for Encampment than Saratoga," Cox reflected on his high school football experience.
Referees for the game wrote down the wrong time. Instead of waiting, the two teams decided to play anyway. Encampment already had waited long enough to play football. The Tigers took the ball inside their own 5-yard line with six players on the 11-man field, complete with 10 instead of 15 yards to gain a first down. Peterson took the pitch on the game's first play and burst through the defense. Ninety-five yards later he crossed the goal line for the touchdown. He trotted to the sidelines for a quick breath before playing defense.
"Those last 20 yards will get you," he told the sidelines, just loud enough for the Encampment fans to laugh at.
He commanded the defense from his linebacker spot, reading the offense aloud to his teammates. He guided the younger players with advice when they subbed into the game. His natural charisma followed him onto the field, where he repeatedly scored. Encampment won 87-34, its most lopsided game of the season.
"We thought we might be solid because we're athletes and all of us know football," Peterson said. "But this is only our third time stepping on the field and we're learning every time on the field. Thanks to Natrona for hosting us because every game we can get in gets us better and our goal is to get better every game."
Afterwards the Tigers once again thanked their two seniors. That duo chose to spend their last football season on a sub-varsity team, in a season of zero consequence, with the intentions of building a program. The Tigers also thought of the junior high team, which they believed to be vital to the program's longevity. As long as the next group loves the game and knows its benefits, they thought, there would always be another football game at Encampment. Finally, they thought about the town itself, now clad with Encampment Tigers team posters and signs. They'd always had a competitive sports teams before but there's something different about football.
Wilford stood in the middle of the small team going over improvements. Even then community members walked up to him weekly and ask if they'd be ready for Oct. 12, the team's first home game since 1990.
"The support from the community as a whole has been amazing and we're very thankful for it," Peterson said. "We can definitely put ourselves on the map this year so that when next year comes around we can put ourselves in position to be successful."
The Tigers put their arms in and broke the huddle with a synchronized "1-2-3 Tigers!" They walked back to the locker room and boarded the bus destined for Encampment. With every mile the bus got closer to home the players thought about how far they'd come. And no matter what else happened in the week, they returned to a hometown eager to hear how the game went.