May 22, 2012 - By Craig Blumenshine, Staff WriterSix years ago, on the grass soccer field between Riverton High School and the James H. Moore Career Center, Riverton High School's boys soccer program hit rock bottom.
Powell, a team which had never won a conference soccer game, came to Riverton and beat the Wolverines. My friends and I hung around after that match and were saddened by what we had just witnessed.
A once-proud Riverton program, a true force in Wyoming soccer, had been allowed to turn into a has-been.
Just a few weeks later, in Powell, Riverton had to beat the Panthers just to qualify to get into the regional tournament. You can guess the outcome. It wasn't pretty for the Wolverines.
Two season before that, head coach Dave Paskett had retired, and the Riverton program nose-dived.
Coach Tom Clark's tenure was short lived as Paskett's replacement, and it was up to RHS activities director Keith Bauder to put a new coaching staff together for the 2008 season.
After the interviews, Bauder had assembled the group, whose average age was closer to 20 than it was to 25, and Erly Cornejo, just a kid fresh off his college soccer team, was named head coach. A new era of Riverton soccer was launched.
What Riverton has now with Cornejo in charge -- this was his fifth season -- and assistant coaches Aziz Waheed and Jesse Cornejo, along with volunteer coaches Rusty Komrs and Trevor Dooley are young, passionate coaches who have led the most-successful boys athletic program over the past five years at Riverton High School.
All are former Wolverines.
Competing in Class 4-A, here are the results: Cornejo's teams have qualified for state the last four seasons and have finished sixth, third and fifth the last three years. Last year, Riverton won more soccer matches, 16, than any team in Wyoming.
Just last week, Riverton lost a first-round nail biter 1-0 to defending state champion Sheridan which, by all accounts was bigger, stronger, more athletic and faster than the Wolverines. Cornejo, who switched formations for the match, orchestrated one of the great defensive performances in state soccer history, according to Sheridan coach Kevin Riser. Riverton almost pulled off the upset.
Next, Riverton knocked off regular season West 4-A champ Rock Springs and East power Cheyenne Central to get the consolation championship trophy.
The turnaround has been remarkable. Riverton has five wins at the state tournament during the last three seasons.
Cornejo is quick to point out that parents who have been involved with teams at a pre-high school level deserve a lot of credit.
But so do Cornejo and his assistants. They had a great state tournament this season that exceeded all expectations.
"Considering where we were and how many lower classmen we had, it's pretty awesome," assistant coach Waheed said.
If there is an adjective that is better than "awesome," insert it here.
Surprisingly, two months ago, the coaching staff was concerned about the team.
"I challenged them. In the winter, I challenged the seniors and told them it may be a rollercoaster ride. It's all about their leadership. They answered," Cornejo said.
These young coaches connect with kids in a unique way.
"We're out there to coach and have fun," Jesse Cornejo said.
Since Erly Cornejo and his staff have taken over, Riverton has performed with senior-laden teams, young teams, experienced teams, and teams that seemed to be less experienced as seasons started.
But Waheed takes it further.
"It all starts with Erly. I remember my first meeting. He said, 'I want to be ultra-positive. We're not going to harp on the little things. We are not going to be the type of coaches that degrade them in any way. We are going to encourage them to do better.' I have bought into that system. Jessie is positive. Erly is the most positive, optimistic person I have been around," Waheed said.
Cornejo looks at it this way: "It's not our team, it is the seniors' team."
Soccer enthusiasts might say, "Well done."
Have a great sports week. Go Big Red!
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