Based on available records, PHS has won 56 titles dating back to the 1943-44 school year, with the first known title coming the next year. Eleven of those titles (20 percent) have come within the past four years.
The football and wrestling teams will enter the 2014-15 school year vying for a fourth straight team title while the volleyball and boys’ track teams will look to defend their own state championships.
On top of the team titles, athletes from the boys’ and girls’ swim teams (each of which took second at state last season), girls’ tennis team, wrestling team and both track teams won individual state titles.
Excitement, and with it, expectations, have risen throughout Powell.
Those expectations, it turns out, may have helped the Panthers excel.
“When you start to have success that tends to roll together, especially if you got the kids that can do it,” said PHS wrestling coach Nate Urbach, who has led the Panther grapplers to three straight Class 3A titles. “It becomes normal to do really well and that’s the kind of culture you want to have.”
But as he said, you have to have the kids who can do it.
The crop of students that has come through the halls of PHS over the last five or so years has included some of the best athletes ever to put on a Panther jersey.
Not only have teams been rich in elite talent, but they’ve been deep, too.
PHS track coach Scott Smith, who sees athletes from all sports at their rawest, purest form, said the Panthers haven’t won on talent alone.
“Since I’ve been here we’ve had a couple runs of athletes that had maybe as much talent or maybe more,” Smith said.
What separates recent Panthers is their commitment to reaching the potential their talent gives them.
“(They) are a very talented group but they’ve really worked hard at making themselves better,” Smith said. “We just had a really good dedicated group of kids that past three or four years. The best I’ve seen since I’ve been (at PHS).”
Panthers have put in extra work during an early morning strength and conditioning class run by head basketball coach Chase Kistler. Beginning at 6:45 a.m., athletes from all sports are invited to improve their overall strength with workout routines Kistler specially designs for certain sports and positions. (See related story.)
High school athletes can rarely do all that’s asked of them without some help, nor should they be asked to do so.
“It starts with good hard-nosed athletes and good parents that are willing to help support everything else,” Urbach said.
While those directly affiliated with PHS were hesitant in bestowing the recent Panthers as the greatest, The Voice of the Panthers (and Powell’s former mayor) was less political with his words.
“This is the best class that I’ve ever seen come through Powell High School,” said Scott Mangold.
Mangold has been covering the Panthers since 1980 and has seen the ebbs and flows of talent that are natural in a small town.
“It’s cyclical,” Mangold said. “Sometimes you just get some really good athletes that go through the program. It all depends of course with the students and the decisions they make and how much they’re willing to put into some of these sports.”
Many of Mangold’s favorite PHS athletes have donned the orange and black in recent years. Four Panthers that played a sport in all three seasons of 2013-14 immediately came to Mangold’s mind.
“Hayden Cragoe for being just an overall athlete — for what he’s done at the QB spot,” Mangold said.
Garrett Lynch stood out for his blend of quickness and sheer strength.
“I’ve never seen a kid that fast and big,” Mangold said. “That sort of new type of athlete.”
Both Cragoe and Lynch graduated, but Mangold was deeply impressed by two athletes returning in the fall of 2014.
“[Incoming senior] Riley Stringer is so fundamentally sound and actually has some speed on him,” Mangold said.
Incoming sophomore Kalina Smith could be called an up-and-coming athlete, except for the fact she already led the PHS volleyball team to a state title as a freshman.
“Kalina Smith — she sort of reminds me of [former PHS volleyball standout] Courtney Trustem,” Mangold said. “Really thin and can jump really far.”
Of course, coaches play a huge, though sometimes underrated, part.
Athletes come and go, but if a coach is good enough a team can withstand talent shortages and reach new heights during talent booms.
“Scott Smith puts out a good product every year even if he doesn’t have the best athletes, but he surrounds himself with great assistants,” Mangold said. “Same with Nate and the wrestling program because Powell is a wrestling town.”
Smith said the track and field coaching staff has been together for more than 10 years. That kind of continuity isn’t uncommon in Powell.
“District-wide most of our sports we have some really really good coaches,” Smith said.
Youth sports have served to develop athletes before they reach the high school ranks, and those coaches are responsible for supplying future Panthers with a proper foundation.
“The USA [Swimming] program and the club teams have seen some success with some longstanding coaches in those ranks,” Mangold said. “Like [PHS volleyball coach] Cindi Smith that runs the amateur clubs in the offseason.”
The bevy of veteran coaches at PHS creates a positive community that is conducive for success.
“I’m good friends with coach Kistler and coach Stringer and coach Smith and I wish them all the success they can have because I know that will help my program, and I’m a Panther fan,” Urbach said.
If talent (both Powell’s and that of competing schools) is cyclical, the Panthers’ time atop Class 3A is surely limited. But how much longer until PHS is ousted? And how far will the potential drop be?
Panther fans have nothing to fear in the immediate future.
Scott Smith wouldn’t make any predictions but said “we’re going to have good athletics for quite a while.”
“You’re not always going to win state championships but you’re going to have some good success and kids are going to feel good about it,” Smith said.
Mangold said 2013-14 was probably a peak in Panther sports but any drop off won’t be immediate or drastic.
“I think you’re still going to find some pretty good success out of the football team and wrestling team (and) the track team,” Mangold said. “Next year I think there should be a lot of success but maybe not the success that we saw this year.”
Even if PHS maintains its current level for a few more years, other 3A schools are doing all they can to catch up.
Mangold said Powell’s titles have formed a target on the school’s back.
“It’s creating better football programs across the state,” Mangold said. “You have more of an interest from Douglas and Afton trying to put together a better football program trying to take Powell down.”
Kistler has received calls from schools around the state looking to emulate the strength and conditioning program he’s developed.
Powell is the envy of a lot of Wyoming prep fans. Park County’s western residents might not admit it, but they haven’t had much to say period.
“These last couple years I haven’t had to hear Cody people brag,” Mangold laughed.
“It’s a nice time to be a Panther,” Urbach said. “It’s — holy cow — I had a kid in class and we’re talking and we’re getting ready to do our banner drop and it’s fun to be a part of that. I’m really happy to be a part of that ride. Because when you first come in and you look at those banners you want to put your stamp (up there).”
Urbach has put his stamp up there five times, but the drive to win never ends.
While speaking to a friend, Urbach explained that it’s going to be tough to continue to collect trophies at such an impressive pace.
His friend responded, “It sounds like a rich man’s problem to me.”
Urbach’s friend was right. The Panthers are in a golden age of athletics and Powell is lucky to be able to cash in on the fun.