Flying with Cowgirls all over Wyoming

 

Decibel levels in the arena were so loud the day the University of Wyoming Cowgirls won the Women’s National Basketball Championship, no other sound could be heard in all of Wyoming.

House finches couldn’t hear their would-be mates entice them to nests. Antelope couldn’t hear the crunch of truck tires on gravel roads and were nearly struck by energy-company trucks. The air vibrated from 15,462 pairs of lungs chanting: C-O-W-G-I-R-L-S! If the sound hadn’t died down after three hours, no one in Wyoming would be able to hear today. Yes, I exaggerate. But not by much.

My ears are still ringing from that home court scream-fest in March, when the Cowgirls defeated the Wisconsin Badgers 72-56. But my lungs were never in jeopardy, because I was not at the game. I was at the previous Final-Four game three nights earlier, in which the Cowgirls needed triple overtime to overcome the Wildcats of Kansas State. Leaving the arena after 10 p.m., drained after being surrounded by more than 12,000 passionate people, I’d decided not to stand in line to buy tickets. Who knew the game would sell out, overnight, in 12 hours? I should have known.

Four years ago, the university hired Coach Joe Legerski, who wondered why the women’s team played in a rundown field house, when the men’s team had fantastic facilities in the domed Arena Auditorium. He got the women’s team moved to the “Dome of Doom,” too. Before long, their games were being broadcast on a radio station heard around most of Wyoming.

It was about this time that I and a lot of other bandwagoners became aware of Cowgirl basketball. I was not one of the few hundred people who abjectly but loyally attended all the women’s games, from the team’s earliest days 20 years ago. I was one of the fans who attended only men’s basketball, who assumed that the power and derring-do of male players far outshined the women. I imagined women players like the girls who played on my high school’s team, whiffing jump shots and whizzing passes out of bounds.

But my high school days were many years ago, when most women’s sports of any kind were truly amateur. That was in the days before Title Nine encouraged young girls to take their sports seriously and opened the way for them to receive athletic scholarships to college and then on in to the professional life of their choosing.

Wyoming seems a natural place to celebrate the accomplishments of women. After all, we are known as the Equality State, first to have a woman governor or female jurors. In a competing bid for nicknames, we are also a conflicted Cowboy State. As itinerant energy-boom workers and absentee vacation-home billionaires scatter themselves around our 97,000 square miles, we’ve found our identity harder to pinpoint. We’re still the state of ranchers, but we’re simultaneously the state of meth labs, trailer parks, man camps, sex shops, drive-through liquor stores, wind farms, diploma mills, tax breaks, snowmobilers and we top the nation in suicides.

But we came together when the Cowgirls started to make their run toward victory in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. People in Wyoming transformed themselves into residents of the newly minted Cowgirl State -- all of us joined under one, even if temporary, identity. We became obsessed with women most had never heard of a few months before. Hanna and Rebecca, the Australian warrior goddesses. Justyna, playing for Wyoming by way of Poland. Jodi, not recruited by the Big-12 college in her own hometown. Megan and Aubrey, both daughters of Wyoming. Elisabeth, 6 foot 1 inch center, and Dominique, point guard running the plays.

Because I couldn’t get tickets to the final game, I watched the broadcast on a national sports network. The commentators seemed impressed with the Cowgirls’ ability to draw huge crowds that nearly filled the arena. They kept saying, “How wonderful that it isn’t just the University of Wyoming students who support the team. It’s the whole town of Laramie.”

We’ve got news for you, folks: All of Wyoming filled the arena that day, in person or in spirit. Our state’s chi could be felt through our collective yelled prayer to believe in something incontestably worthy, to each and every one of us. And if you look closely, you can still see the letters C-O-W-G-I-R-L-S formed with our collective breath, flying in the prevailing winds, somewhere over Nebraska.

Julianne Couch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She cheers and writes in Laramie, Wyoming.