LARAMIE -- It has been pretty much a season-long struggle for the injury-plagued Cowboys basketball team. Force to require the extensive efforts of freshmen, while a hand full of key players have missed extended periods with serious injuries, the Cowboys have been challenged to compete in the Mountain West Conference.
And now comes Colorado State, which will visit the AA on Saturday for a noon tip off with Wyoming in what is one of the more intense rivalries in college basketball – for those who have experienced the moment.
The Border War is not a run-of-the-mill afternoon, regardless of the sport.
But how does head coach Allen Edwards and his staff make a team that has a roster filled with new faces drive that point home to those who didn’t grow up amid Border War smack talk?
Rest assured, an experienced CSU team is much more aware of the passion of its fan base has in terms of games with Wyoming.
Only two members of the Cowboys active roster have ever experienced the event – seniors Justin James and Jordan Naughton, and Naughton has merely tasted an appetizer.
James has played in the last six games, the two teams having each won three, and in both cases two of the three wins came on the road. James was more observer than competitor as a freshman, but in the last two seasons, he has averaged 22 points against CSU. Naughton has appeared in only two games over his three years, scoring four points and hauling in one rebound.
While redshirt freshman Hunter Thompson and recent walk-on addition Haze Fornstrom grew up in Pine Bluffs and have heard about and seen plenty of Border War Games. But the rest of the roster?
None of them have ever experienced the emotions of a Border War from the stands or the court.
There are two junior college transfers – Jake Hendricks (Smithfield, Utah) and A.J Banks (Las Vegas) – and five true freshmen – Brandon Porter (Virginia Beach, Va.), TJ Taylor (Chesapeake, Va.), Trace Young (Owensboro, Ky.), and Brandon Belt (Huntsville, Ala.).
CSU, meanwhile, has a six-pack of players who have been a part of a Border War in the last three years, including Nico Cavacho, arguably the best center in the Mountain West, who has 13 rebounds and eight points in CSU’s 78-73 win at Laramie a year ago, and scored 10 points with 13 rebounds in the Cowboys 91-86, double overtime victory at Moby Gym.
In addition, J.D. Paige, Anthony Masinton-Bonner, Deion James, Robbie Berwick and Logan Ryan have all experienced the emotions on the court when the Cowboys and Rams face off.
The bright spot for the Cowboys in the loss to Air Force on Wednesday is that Hendrick did return after missing nine games with a knee injury, and was a factor, sinking seven three-point shots for 21 points, and turning what the Cowboys had hoped would be a 15-minute effort into 29 minutes on the court.
“That’s amazing,” said Edwards. “He’s been out five weeks, six weeks, and still is slowed down. How he was flying around and getting on the flor … It what you try to get some of those younger guys to understand. That has nothing to do with talent. That’s understanding how the game should be played.”
And that’s about maintaining a focus from start to finish, which has been a challenge for the Cowboys.
Ten days ago, in Laramie, the Cowboys hosted Fresno State, a consensus pick as the second-best team in the conference. With 8:52 to play the score was tied at 51. Fresno rattled off a 14-0 spurt amid a game-winning 20-4 run.
“I ask the guys to play hard,” said Edwards, “not play hard for spurts or play hard for moments or play hard because you feel you are wounded. … One bad possession can’t lead to another. We have to get over that stuff.”
In a Border War, where emotions can run high, that can be a challenge for a group with little history to lean on.