Estevan Sandoval is a coach in search of a basketball program.

Sandoval, a 2013 St. Michael’s graduate, learned Thursday morning that he and the rest of the athletic department at Gillette College in Wyoming were fired as the junior college axed athletics at the school in a cost-cutting measure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He completed his first year as an assistant coach for the Pronghorns, who went 26-6 in 2019-20 in the Region IX division of the NJCAA, after spending the previous two seasons as a graduate assistant at the University of New Mexico, where he was also a student manager for four years.

The move came on the heels of the Northern Wyoming Community College District Board of Trustees meeting June 18 in which they declared a financial emergency as they faced dwindling revenue and funding cuts from the state. The school released a statement saying the school saved $2.8 million by cutting athletics at Gillette and Sheridan colleges and will present a budget to the trustees that trims $3.96 million out of both schools’ 2020-21 fiscal budget.

The only sport that survived at both schools was rodeo, which will be funded at a reduced cost.

Sandoval said he and many other coaches were blindsided by the decision, as he was informed Wednesday afternoon of a Thursday meeting during which each coach from the other four teams (men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer) were informed of their termination.

“You look at the year 2020, and it has slapped people in the face,” Sandoval said. “[Thursday], it added to that with me.”

It wasn’t until after his meeting that Sandoval learned the school was phasing out the athletic department, which he said was a slap in the face to the hard work the coaches and players put in to make their respective programs successful. The men’s basketball program was guided by head coach Shawn Neary for its entire history, which started in 2009, and went 268-90 with three appearances in the NJCAA Tournament. The women’s basketball program was ranked in the Top 25 last season, and the women’s soccer program made its first NJCAA Tournament appearance in the fall.

James Barron and Will Webber discuss the significant toll the COVID-19 pandemic has had on sports locally and nationally, and also share their thoughts on a bizarre state basketball tournament that finished in front of no fans.

The school also spent $20 million about 3½ years ago on the Pronghorn Center, which housed the basketball programs.

Sandoval said the men’s basketball team had a strong incoming recruiting class and felt it was going to compete for the regional title next year.

“To me, it was just, wow, this is a harsh step,” Sandoval said. “There were other ways to financially remedy what’s going on and what athletics was taking away from the school. They didn’t give us the opportunity to voice that.”

Sandoval said he knows that the recent spike in coronavirus cases nationwide was a cause for concern, but he felt that Wyoming was not a state that was dealing with a lot of cases. As of Thursday, the Wyoming reported 42 cases in Campbell County, which is where the school is located, and 1,058 statewide.

Sandoval added he was not aware of other community and junior colleges in the state planning to cut athletics. The news came on the heels of Arizona’s Maricopa County Community Colleges District making a recommendation to cancel sports for the 2020-21 year because of the rise in COVID-19 cases in the state. It would remove seven schools from competition in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference.

In the meantime, Sandoval’s family will make the trip to Wyoming on Friday and help him return to Santa Fe. He said he received hundreds of phone calls after news leaked of the cuts, which he appreciated. Sandoval said he is not sure what his immediate plans include, but he wants to continue coaching.

“You see the ugly side of the business in this stuff,” Sandoval said. “Unfortunately, some people don’t see athletics as necessary, and that’s what they told us.”

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(2) comments

Andrew Lucero

That's a tough break... But I wish him all the best.

Michael Welsh

This is happening at lots of schools as their new fiscal years begin on July 1, and there's no guarantee that they will play. Then there's the problem that most college sports do not generate anywhere near the funding needed to pay their way. Unless there's a wealthy donor or two who will backfill the losses, college sports may become what it was a century ago--club and intramural activities for students who want some exercise.

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