BIG PINEY – The Punchers entered the court for their semifinal match against Sundance at the 2A State Basketball Championships. Statistics and polls across the state favored the Bulldogs, with a 20-1 record, to win and advance to the Championship game.
“Not very many teams believed in us, especially others from across the state,” said Big Piney senior Edwin Gonzalez.
“I think we had a lot of odds against us, like when we had a bunch of people hurt at the beginning of the season,” said senior Carlos Munoz.
The Punchers defeated Big Horn, 37-34, in the quarterfinals to advance to the showdown against Sundance. Big Piney played Big Horn at Casper College, and the semifinal game was the first the Punchers played on the makeshift court in the middle of the Ford Wyoming Center.
“When you get to the State Tournament, you have a different gym – those lines make you feel off,” said Munoz. “Playing in that environment was pretty tough, but after beating Big Horn, all that weight just dropped and we felt like we deserved to be there.”
Big Piney stayed neck and neck against Sundance through the third quarter, but found themselves behind in the fourth.
“We were down by five or six points with 50 seconds left and we had some (teammates) come up clutch and win the game for us,” said senior Kaden Raza. “It was a highlight beating both of the teams we weren't expected to beat – Big Horn and Sundance.”
Big Piney tied the Bulldogs when the buzzer sounded and the game went into overtime. Raza pulled off a 2-pointer to match Sundance, 61-61. Gonzalez took the ball and shot in a 3-pointer with dead-eye accuracy to seal the win for the Punchers.
“In the game prior to Sundance, I hadn't really shot the ball well, wasn't really confident in myself anymore,” said Gonzalez. “Ethan (Whiterock) really brought my confidence back up and helped me gain my shot back and we were able to get a win against Sundance.”
The Punchers advanced to the championship game for the first time since 1982.
“It was crazy,” said Raza. “It didn't feel like we were going to the championship game. I was completely numb. It was awesome.”
“Playing Sundance was probably one of our toughest challenges,” Munoz said. “They were 20-1 when they saw us. Their only loss (during the season) was to a State Championship team. To beat them felt pretty good because we knew that we belonged at State.”
Big Piney squared off against the 2A West Regional Champions, Rocky Mountain, for the state title. The game finished tied after 32 minutes. Rocky Mountain managed to edge ahead in overtime for the win.
“Second at State wasn't really what we wanted, but it still felt really good being able to show what we could do at that level, at State,” said Gonzalez. “It was really good for the town – the team hasn't done that in about four decades.”
When the dust settled, the Wyoming Coaches Association recognized Gonzalez, Munoz and Raza with All-State honors. Gonzalez also received 2A Southwest Player of the Year recognition.
Routine, grit and brotherhood
The pressure to perform at State can be overwhelming. The Punchers faced an uphill battle, but managed to come together at State.
“I have a pregame routine,” said Raza. “I listen to music, take care of my body, hydrate and listen to what coach says. Once we step out on that court, it's tunnel vision for me.”
“I just try to think of it as another game,” said Gonzalez. “I do what I usually do – go to the locker room, listen to my music, eat a snack, dribble the ball.”
Head coach Nate Strong reminded the team not to make the tournament bigger than what it was, said Munoz.
“He said if we win, lose or draw, we're still representing our town,” Munoz added. “Another point he brought up was that you never actually lose if you feel like you're that little kid in the driveway, playing ball, making those last-second shots.”
Strong spent the season teaching the Punchers to play with true grit.
“Our team motto this year was grit – making sure you give it all you got even when it's hard,” explained Munoz. “I think we did that, in every game, even when we were down. That's what made us come back in those overtime games with momentum.”
Gonzalez said he found confidence, and grit, during a tough game against Wind River during the regular season that went into double overtime.
“We were down quite a bit, but after that win, we knew we could come up no matter what,” he said. “We knew that if we were down 15, 20 points, within a quarter, we'll be able to pull it back up if we just play hard and keep that grit.”
Raza said that the bonds formed between teammates made each win count.
“I like playing team sports for the brotherhood that we have on every single team I've been on and the friendships that are made.”
Gonzalez, Munoz and Raza started playing basketball at an early age. Raza said his sports-fanatic uncles got him hooked.
“They'd always invite me to come out and play with them, like H-O-R-S-E and P-I-G and all that fun stuff,” he said. “That's where it started – just playing with my family.”
Gonzalez initially came from a background in soccer and joined the basketball team in sixth grade.
“Before I moved to Wyoming, it was all about soccer – soccer this, soccer that,” he said. “I never really thought about other sports. Then I tried out basketball and I've grown to really like it.”
Munoz played for the Junior Jazz League in elementary school.
“I didn't really know much about basketball, but I played a lot with Kaden,” he explained.“His dad (Cody Raza) was one of the coaches for Junior Jazz and he kept me in the game.”
The three All-State recipients are multi-sport athletes. Gonzalez continues to play soccer for the Pinedale Wranglers. The footwork, conditioning and agility necessary for success in soccer translates to basketball, he said.
Munoz and Raza play Puncher football in the fall.
“I love being competitive,” Munoz said. “Football and basketball brought out the best in me.”
“You get to hit people in football,” Raza said. “In basketball, you'd get called for a foul on that.”
Raza signed to play football for Black Hills State University. He plans to pursue a degree in wildlife biology.
Gonzalez is looking into playing basketball in college and pursuing a degree in finance and business administration. Munoz has earned several scholarships to community colleges and eventually wants to become a chiropractor.
The three Punchers thanked their coaches, family, teammates, Joan Mitchell and friends for support and gave a shoutout to the community.
“The community has been there when we've lost by 30 points, and they've been there when we made it to State,” said Gonzalez.