Natrona County products succeed at Wyoming

Josh Harshman used to be the last one to leave War Memorial Stadium.

When he was a child, he would attend Wyoming football games with his family, and afterward, he would kick field goals on Jonah Field until no one but his family was left.

Though he has since given up field goal duties, Harshman now picks up first downs on that same field as a sophomore tight end — none bigger than last week in a win against Boise State, who was ranked higher than any team Wyoming had beaten since Harshman’s father, Steve, was a child himself.

“I think those things start early,” said Steve Harshman, the head football coach at Natrona County High School, “and I think Wyoming kids have that special bond to our only university.”

Fellow Natrona graduate Logan Wilson has started every game this season at weak-side linebacker. He’s the only Cowboy State product to start for Wyoming this year.

“(Previous Wyoming coach Dave) Christensen didn’t really recruit Wyoming kids as much as (head coach Craig) Bohl,” Wilson said. “And Coach Bohl made it an emphasis that he wanted Wyoming kids in this program.

“I think it’s good for our state. To have the kids that are good enough to play at this level have the opportunity to come play here is really unique, because it’s the only in-state university. So to be able to come here and play football is really awesome.”

Wilson and Harshman, perhaps more than anyone else on the team, have been able to appreciate what it means for 7-2 Wyoming to get off to its best start since 1998, before Harshman was even old enough to think about kicking footballs on an empty Jonah Field.

Wilson didn’t take long to make his presence known. In Wyoming’s season opener against Northern Illinois, he had a fumble recovery in overtime that very well might have saved the game for the Cowboys. Wyoming ended up winning 40-34 in triple overtime in a late-night thriller that set the tone for the rest of the season.

“From the beginning of the game, I was a little bit nervous coming out, night game, Northern Illinois,” Wilson said. “But I think I’ve made some improvement from that first game to now.”

Wilson is actually a rookie at linebacker. In high school, he played safety and cornerback, and he was a safety last year during his redshirt season, though he played linebacker on the scout defense.

That has made Wilson’s success this season all the more impressive. His 57 total tackles rank fourth on the team. He has three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and three pass breakups.

Has the redshirt freshman’s success surprised his teammates and coaches?

“Yes and no,” Bohl said. “Yes on how comfortable he is. No on his ability. We saw last year when we would do some fundamental work he had really good feet. He was a good tackler, he’s got good size, and he can run well. It was just going to come down to whether he could adapt and learn and I think each game he’s gotten better.”

Said middle linebacker Lucas Wacha: “No, I’m not (surprised), actually. Because Logan, he plays really hard. He has a fire up underneath him. He’s given a lot to this team, and he’s definitely producing very well as a linebacker.”

Wacha has had as much of an eye on Wilson as anyone. The senior and team captain has been instrumental to Wilson’s development in his first year on the field.

“He’s been awesome,” Wilson said. “I don’t know if I’d be here if it wasn’t — I mean, I’d be here, but at this point in my career — if it wasn’t for him because he’s really helped me come along as a player. I’ve been studying the film and getting to know the defense. He’s really helped me out a lot.”

Steve Harshman has known Wilson since he was a third-grader at Oregon Trail Elementary, where Harshman’s wife teaches.

“It’s been really cool to kind of see the whole progression from a little kid just through high school and now,” Harshman said. “You know, that’s been kind of hallmark of that whole group of kids we had. They just kept on working and just keep working and keep working. They just stayed with the whole process, and it’s been really cool to watch this play out for them.”

Wilson and Josh Harshman won a Wyoming Class 4A state football championship on Jonah Field in 2014 under Steve Harshman.

During Wyoming’s bye week, while the Cowboys were sitting at 4-2 with a 2-0 record in conference play, Harshman and Wilson went back to Casper to watch Natrona play Sheridan.

It was the first time Harshman got to see his younger brother Jesse play quarterback for the Mustangs.

“It was pretty cool,” Jesse said. “My mom kept it a secret. I had no idea that he was even up here, so I saw him, and I think we had a pretty tough loss.

“It was a pretty close game and so seeing him put a smile on my face and made me forget about the loss easier. It was a really good feeling. Really awesome to see him.”

By then, Wyoming had already beaten Colorado rivals Colorado State and Air Force and doubled the previous year’s win total.

Josh Harshman and Wilson were more than just former Mustang stars at that point. They were a model of what current Natrona players could aspire to be.

“It is a blueprint, absolutely, and a recipe for a success,” Steve Harshman said. “Be a good student, be a good guy, be true blue to your teammates and be a hard worker. Because hard work always works. I mean, it always works out for those guys who have worked the hardest. I firmly believe that, and you bet, it’s been great to kind of see that whole thing play out.”

And with Bohl’s commitment to recruiting in-state players — whether it’s as walk-ons or scholarship players like Wilson and Josh Harshman — the Cowboys play a bigger role in that blueprint.

“You’ve got to have people that care, because nothing was ever built good if you’re looking at the clock all the time and wondering if you’re working overtime,” Steve Harshman said. “It’s always guys who are going to come early and leave late and do the extra and care the extra and go the extra bit, and that’s how you build any organization.”

After Wyoming beat No. 13 Boise State, Jonah Field was far from empty.

The War Memorial Stadium crowd of 24,023 rushed the field once the Cowboys had secured their spot alone atop the Mountain Division.

Thousands of ecstatic Cowboy fans had already made the green field brown and gold by the time Steve Harshman got down there.

“Thousands,” he said. “So I hit the field and at about the 50-yard line, I thought, there is no way (I can find Josh). It’s a feeling of joy and euphoria and it was so cool. And then out of the crowd, I see Josh coming, and we see each other at the same time.”

Standing on Jonah Field after the biggest Wyoming win in recent memory, two lifetime Cowboys fans — one now a player, one his former coach — hugged.

For a minute, they didn’t say a word. The moment spoke for itself.

“Tears rolling down our cheeks, and he’s making like these little boy sounds of joy,” Steve Harshman said. “Just couldn’t speak.

“So does it mean a lot? You bet it does.”

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