A final farewell

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This was my final column for WyoSports, the combined efforts of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang. After nearly 26 years, I have stepped down and excited for the next opportunity.

I want to thank all of you who showed and interest in my work over the years, whether it was here on this blog, the print products or online.

Here is the column in its entirety.

I wasn’t sure how to start this, but after mulling it over for two weeks the best way to do it is by saying, “thank you.”

For nearly 26 years, I have had the privilege and honor to be a sports writer, editor, columnist and several other duties for both the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang. But this will be my last column.

Two weeks ago, I was offered and accepted a new job. Starting Monday, I will be the associate editor for “Wyoming Wildlife” magazine with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. I am excited and humbled for this opportunity, but it is also bittersweet.

When I got into this business, I figured this is what I would do for the rest of my working career. For a while, I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else.

But times change, and, for me personally, it was time for a change.

I could fill an entire newspaper page with names of people who deserve thanks for helping me along in my professional career. Journalism professors, former bosses, former employees and current friends and colleagues all of whom gave me the guidance and chance to pursue a dream, and gave me a lot of sound advice and encouraging words along the way.

I always wanted to be involved in sports. Writing about it provided me with the ultimate platform.

People have asked what the best part of my job was. The answer is simple: telling the stories of the athletes, coaches and those involved in numerous sports.

One former boss told me covering sports would drive him crazy because it was the same thing every week. The sports would change with the season, but it was the same cycle year after year.

For me, that was the furthest thing from the truth. Every year, every team and every game I’ve covered was different. I’ve covered nearly 300 University of Wyoming football games, and about triple that number for UW basketball.

There are moments, games and people that stand out. But what also sticks out is my first beat when I started at the WTE. I covered the small high schools in eastern Laramie County – Albin, Burns and Pine Bluffs. Nothing was more enjoyable than going to all of those communities where people packed the gyms to watch their teams play basketball. That’s where sports are at its purest, both back then and still today.

To the many high school coaches, players and administrators who have shared their time with me, thank you.

I became hooked on sports writing my sophomore year of college at UW. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do my first year-and-a-half there, but once I gave writing a shot (I didn’t do anything like that in high school), that was it.

My dream was to cover college athletics. To get that opportunity here not only to cover college athletics, but one as important as UW is to the people of this state was more than I could ever ask for.

Certain games and moments stand out. Bowl victories over UCLA (2004), Fresno State (2009) and Central Michigan (2017) are among them. UW’s season-opening 37-31 victory over Missouri also is up there. I didn’t see that one coming, especially not after the Cowboys fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter.

The Cowboys winning the Mountain West Tournament in basketball in 2015 was special. What some don’t know is that after the quarterfinal victory over Utah State, I came down with a nasty case of food poisoning (is there such a thing as a non-nasty case of food poisoning?) and nearly didn’t make the semifinal game against Boise State. That morning, when I got a call from a news editor to plan coverage for both sports and news, I was laying flat on the floor in my hotel room and could hardly move due to dehydration and cramping. Thankfully, I made the game and there were no “accidents” on press row.

I will miss a lot of little things about covering sports that many would describe as weird. Such as being three hours early to most football games, and at least two hours early for basketball. I loved watching practice, at any level of sport. Not to report on the secret plays or formations, but to get a gauge of what could be coming in the games.

I won’t miss coaching searches, but the coaches, players and so many others associated with college athletics will be missed. To all of them, thank you.

This career has afforded me a lot of unique opportunities. I’ve been to and seen places I wouldn’t with a “normal job.” They say football in the South is a different beast, and it definitely is. Covering games at Auburn, Alabama, College Station, Texas, Oxford, Mississippi, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Gainesville, Florida, hammered that home fast.

College basketball games at Kansas and North Carolina also are unlike anything most fans have ever experienced.

It also has provided opportunities to do other things within the journalism business, such as radio show appearances, a few television spots (I have a face for radio and a voice for newspapers) and the crown jewel of my career – to co-author a book with my friend and colleague Ryan Thorburn called “The Border War,” which depicts the history of the UW-Colorado State football rivalry. Sorry, shameless plug there. None of those things would have been possible had I not been a sports journalist.

From the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo, the Border War and the NFL draft, this has been a fun ride.

Last, but certainly not least, I want to thank the readers who took the time over the years to read my stuff. Whether you agreed or disagreed with what I wrote, thank you for your time, feedback and interest.

Rocket ready launch for Cowboys

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His first season with the University of Wyoming football team wasn’t bad for wide receiver Raghib Ismail Jr., known as “Rocket.”

The junior college transfer, who began his career at TCU, caught 24 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns. Now a senior, Ismail is UW’s leading returning wide receiver in terms of yards and touchdowns, and second in catches (senior Austin Conway had 32).

But last season also was a struggle for Ismail.

“With knowledge comes comfort. That was my downfall last year was the lack of knowledge of the playbook. This year that has been my main focus,” he said.

“My personal goal is to remain focused and even keel throughout. Don’t get too high on the highs or too lows on the lows so I can be more consistent. Football for me last year was more of an outlet instead of something I love to do. There was a lot of life stuff that distracted me. My focus this year is to compartmentalize everything and approach the game as a professional so i can be reliable.”

On paper, Ismail is UW’s best big-play threat at wide receiver. His 11.1 yards per catch last season is the highest among the Cowboys’ returning receivers. A lot of things need to improve for UW in its passing game, and the wide receiving corps is one of them. Whether it is making more big plays, making the routine ones, getting open, catching the ball or blocking downfield, all need to be better.

It is fair to say that UW’s wide receivers have come under their fair share of scrutiny from fans and the media heading into this season. Ismail said that hasn’t effected him or his teammates.

“We live together, we die together,” he said. “With all the criticism and all the scrutiny, we never point fingers at each other. We keep each other’s heads up. We motivate each other. If one brother is down, the others pick him up. I’m excited to see what’s going to happen this year.”

Ismail’s nickname comes from his dad, Raghib Ismail Sr., who earned it when he starred at Notre Dame as a wide receiver and return specialist. Asked if he liked that nickname, Junior was quick with his response.

“I love it and wouldn’t change it for anything,” he said. “It is more than just a nickname. It is a family thing. It has opened a lot of doors, and provides a certain level of respect I have to live up to.”

UW’s final practice of fall camp is Saturday, but it has been working on its Aug. 31 opener against Missouri the last few days. Be sure to check out the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang Sunday as WyoSports’ 68-page UW football preview section comes out. It should be posted online at wyosports.net as well. Also in Sunday’s papers and at wyosports.net, I give you my five biggest takes from fall camp, as well as my top 20 players in the Mountain West this season. Two UW players made my list. Can you guess which two?


Some new faces to watch for the Cowboys in 2019

Wednesday marked the one-quarter mark of fall camp for the University of Wyoming football team. However, a lot of work needs to be done before the Cowboys open the season Aug. 31 at home against Missouri.

Wednesday also was the first practice in full pads, which is a time when coaches get the best chances to evaluate all players in action.

While nothing is set in stone, a few names among new and younger players are starting to emerge in terms of who fans could be seeing in games this season.

Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Jake Dickert said Wednesday redshirt freshman Charles Hicks has made a lot of progress from the spring, and is in the mix to be in the linebacker rotation this season. Hicks is a middle linebacker, and UW is set there with senior starter Logan Wilson of Casper. Senior Ben Wisdorf of Cheyenne and sophomore Chad Muma get reps in practice at both the middle and outside linebacker spots (also known as the WILL).

If UW was to play a game right now, Wilson and senior Cassh Maluia would be the starters in the middle and at WILL, respectively. Muma is probably the No. 3 linebacker and top backup at both spots, followed by Wisdorf and with Hicks making big strides. Dickert also said true freshman Easton Gibbs is doing some good things early in camp at WILL.

Dickert also said at nickel, UW’s hybrid outside linebacker/defensive back position, that true freshman Allen Smith is getting a strong look behind sophomore Keyon Blankenbaker.

UW fullbacks/tight ends coach Shannon Moore said the top three fullbacks at this point in camp — in no particular order — are junior Skyler Miller of Torrington, senior Jaylon Watson and junior Jeff Burroughs of Yoder.

For more UW football coverage, see the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang, log on to wyosports.net and check back to this blog.

Early fall camp observations for Wyoming football

Hello all,

It has been a while since I posted anything here. Maintaining or posting to this blog is not a high priority for my bosses, but I figure if we have it, we better utilize it.

With that said, I wanted to drop a few observations from the first couple of practices I’ve seen from fall camp for the University of Wyoming football team. Granted, I’ve only seen two of the first four practices (the other two didn’t have media access). II only see the first 30 minutes of practice, and frankly, the team doesn’t do a whole lot worth mentioning during that time.

But here are some early thoughts:

— This goes back to the spring, but I am impressed with new offensive line coach Bart Miller. Every offensive lineman I’ve talked to (and it has been a lot) love this guy. He’s tough, tough-minded and wants his guys to have that same mindset. Nothing against former offensive line coach Scott Fuchs, who I also liked and thought was a good coach, but there just seems to be a different mentality with this group. Would like to see them stay healthy, and tackle depth is a huge concern. But I get a sense Miller will have this group play at a different level consistently than we’ve seen the last five years.

— Sixth-year coach Craig Bohl has said a few different times about how redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Chambers is throwing the ball with more confidence and is better fundamentally. That should be a natural progression for him after the brief time we saw Chambers last season. From what I’ve seen, I agree with Bohl. But it is one thing to do it in drills, it is another thing when the games begin. I still think UW has a luxury having sophomore Tyler Vander Waal at quarterback. Yes, he had his ups and downs last year, but what he did to rally the Cowboys to a win at home over Air Force in the snow showed what this kid is capable of. Vander Waal also has looked good early in camp. Few college teams have two competent quarterbacks they can turn to who have won games at this level. UW does, and that could benefit them this season.

— Bohl has given a lot of hype and praise to his two young tight ends in redshirt freshman Jackson Marcotte (6-7, 250) and sophomore Nate Weinman (6-7, 267). Maybe hype isn’t the best word, but Bohl has high expectations for them — along with senior Josh Harshman of Casper, the “runt” of the group at 6-3, 240. For UW to be good on offense, a lot of things need to happen, and being good at tight end — both in the run and pass game — is one of them.

— So far the injuries have been minimal in camp. Bohl said Tuesday redshirt freshman defensive tackle Mario Mora hurt his back and didn’t finish practice. Not sure of the severity of the injury, but it doesn’t appear to be season-ending. Fans will like Mora. He’s a bit small at 6-3, 264, but he’s quick and knows the defense and its concepts well for a young player.

For more UW football coverage, see the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang, and log on to wyosports.net. Also, check back to this blog. I welcome your feedback and questions, in fact, I encourage it. You can leave comments/questions here on this blog, email me at [email protected] or hit me up on Twitter: @rpgagliardi.

UW spring football notes & quotes entering week No. 3

Wyoming spring football practice has hit about the midway point.

No final decisions on who will play and start in the 2019 opener against Missouri Aug. 31 have been decided, but even though the coaches won’t say as much, they likely have a good idea at some positions.

One concern this spring has been along the offensive line. UW lost junior guard Gavin Rush for the season with a torn ACL. That was a big blow to this group. Junior guard Logan Harris missed some time last week with a back injury, but is back at practice. Redshirt freshman Zach Watts has moved around between guard and tackle. Sophomore Keegan Cryder, who earned Freshman All-America honors last season as a center for the Cowboys, has been getting some reps at tackle. Cryder wasn’t supposed to do much this spring due to off-season knee surgery.

Not sure UW will have a lot of definite answers there coming out of spring, and it better hope junior tackle Alonzo Velasquez (knee) returns healthy for fall camp.

Because of the issues along the offensive line, UW hasn’t been able to double-rep much — if at all — this spring, meaning having two groups of offense vs. defense getting snaps.

“We’re a little bit behind where we normally would have been, but some springs are like this,” sixth-year coach Craig Bohl said.

— Last week I did a story on UW’s two most experienced interior defensive linemen in juniors Ravontae Holt and Javaree Jackson. When I asked UW defensive tackles coach Pete Kaligis about who else is developing this spring behind Holt and Jackson, he mentioned a kid who may not see the field for the Cowboys, but had glowing things to say about — junior walk-on Justice Borton of Wheatland.

“Justice is so selfless, and that’s why he is a leader. He may not get on the field, and he knows that, but he will do anything for this team. The most important thing to him is we win on Saturdays. The team is more important to him than playing time. I can’t say enough about him. I am blessed to coaches all of these guys, but I love that kid. He is a rock in the locker room, and he’s going to pick people up.”

Borton has never played in a game for UW. He is listed at 6-foot-2, 272 pounds. He has practiced along both the offensive and defensive lines. Hard not to root for a kid like him, but any successful team needs guys like Borton.

— Another story I did last week was on senior wide receiver Austin Conway and his experience as a high school basketball official in Wyoming the last couple of years. Here is a link to that story in case you missed it.

Conway has been one of UW’s most productive and consistent receivers the last three years. This is what he said after I asked him his goals for his final season of playing college football.

“Trying to win a Mountain West championship and as many games as I can to leave a foundation for guys to continue on how coach Bohl wants to run this football team. Since I have been where we almost were MW champs, a bowl winner and not going to a bowl. I’ve seen it all. Stat-wise, I don’t care. I just wnat to win games. I want to come out with another couple of rings on my hand with a MW championship and a bowl win.”

— One last thing: I want to give a huge thank to you to Bohl. After practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays so far he has provided the media with dinner as we do interviews after practice. One night there was pizza, followed by sliders and fried oysters and then some barbecue. Bohl said it was for his appreciation to the media. As a media member for more than 25 years, it is very much appreciated.

For more UW sports coverage, see the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang, and log on to wyosports.net.

How UW writers voted on All-MW men’s basketball team

On Monday, the media that covers Mountain West men’s basketball released its All-MW basketball postseason honors. A few years ago, the media voted with the league’s 11 head coaches for the all-conference team, but the league decided to just go with the coaches so the media decided to do their own all-conference voting.

The coaches’ all-conference team will be released Tuesday.

How it works with the media is each “market” is granted one vote. Myself and Davis Potter of the Casper-Star Tribune got together for the Wyoming “market” vote.

Here is a link to the media’s all-conference team, and individual awards.

https://www.wyosports.net/university_of_wyoming/mens_basketball/james-earns-first-team-all-mw-honors-by-media/article_c6e8d74a-4422-11e9-a524-0bab07e16a40.html

UW senior guard Justin James was UW’s lone representative on the all-conference lists by the media. He earned first team honors for the second consecutive year. James led the MW during the regular season in scoring (21.8 ppg) and steals (1.52 per game). He also was fourth is assists (4.4 per game) and fifth in rebounding (8.6 per game).

The media’s all-conference break down had a first, second and third team, along with some honorable mentions. All of the “market” ballots were tallied and given point totals.

Below is how myself and Potter voted:

1. Sam Merrill, Utah State
2. Jordan Caroline, Nevada
3. Justin James, Wyoming
4. Caleb Martin, Nevada
5. Nico Carvacho, Colorado State
6. Braxton Huggins, Fresno State
7. Jalen McDaniels, San Diego State
8. Deshon Taylor, Fresno State
9. Lavelle Scottie, Air Force
10. Neemais Queta, Utah State
11. Justinian Jessup, Boise State
12. Cody Martin, Nevada13. Nate Grimes, Fresno State
14. Ryan Swan, Air Force
15. Noah Robotham, UNLV

Player of the Year: Sam Merrill, Utah State
Defensive Player of the Year: Cody Martin, Nevada
Freshman of the Year: Neemais Queta, Utah State
Newcomer of the Year: Braxton Huggins, Fresno State
6th Man of the Year: Jazz Johnson, Nevada
Coach of the Year: Craig Smith, Utah State

Potter and I were on the same page with the rest of the media in terms of who made the first, second and third team. As you can see, we had Nevada senior Cody Martin as the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, but Utah State freshman center Neemias Queta garnered more votes.

Potter and I had the same guys for the individual awards as the rest of the media.

Any thoughts, opinions on the media’s all-conference team?

Another new experience for many Cowboys as MW Men’s Basketball Tournament begins

There’s been a lot of firsts for Wyoming men’s basketball this season.

A first-year coach.

First-year players, and others with bigger roles.

Five UW players will go through another first Wednesday when the No. 7 seed Cowboys (18-13) play No. 10 Air Force (11-20) at 2:30 p.m. MT  in a first-round game. They will play in their first-ever MW Tournament game.

Justin James

Two in particular are sophomore guard Justin James and junior forward Hayden Dalton. Both were on the team last year, but were suspended prior to the tournament after being cited by Laramie police for drug use. James and Dalton are UW’s two leading scorers at 15.5 and 12.5 points per game, respectively.

“It hurt knowing I couldn’t be out there helping my team in some way. This year I’m ready to play,” James said.

Needless to say, UW needs both players to have good games Wednesday, but perhaps the biggest area is ball security. James and Dalton lead UW in turnovers. Between both, they average about five turnovers per game, and many of them are careless turnovers that can easily be avoided.

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No UW sports live chat this week

There won’t be a live chat Thursday on University of Wyoming sports, nor will there be much — if any — posts on this blog this week.

I am out of town this entire week, and early next week, for the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) winter conference in Orlando, Florida.

The next scheduled live chat is Thursday, March 2.

UW players put it on themselves to do what coaches tell them

After Wyoming’s 78-73 home loss to Colorado State Tuesday, first-year coach Allen Edwards said at some point his players must get what he and his staff are telling them and go out and do it.

For those of you who missed it, here is Edwards’ complete postgame comments:

To me, there seems to be a communication problem between the coaching staff and the players, which led me to write column which ran Thursday in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang and online at wyosports.net. Here’s the link: http://bit.ly/2kPmH9h

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