(UW Athletics release)
LARAMIE, Wyo. – When Wyoming Cowboy seniors Nico Evans and Adam Pilapil were high school freshmen in Los Angeles, Calif., they would have never imagined that nine years later they would still be playing football together. They also wouldn’t have imagined that their love for the game of football would take them from Los Angeles to Laramie, Wyo., where they would be part of a class that would turnaround the fortunes of the University of Wyoming football program.
The two California natives first met each other at Loyola High School in L.A. They came from different parts of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, but football brought them together and has kept them together for years.
“At Loyola (High School), your freshman year there are about 130 to 150 guys who come out for the football team,” said Pilapil. “Basically, no one really knows each other. It’s kind of referred to as a commuter school. You may know a couple kids from your area, but everybody commutes into the school. It is just a bunch of people who you don’t know, but everybody wants to play football. So that is how Nico and I kind of started.
“I remember the first time that I saw Nico, he popped into the weight room and he had jeans on and regular tennis shoes. We went out on the track to run 100s, and he was beating everybody. After that, we just kind of developed a friendship.
“Our sophomore year, Nico was the tailback and I was the quarterback. That kind of brought us together, and from then on we just hung out with the same group of friends. By the time our senior year came around, he was a leader of the offense and I was one of the leaders of the defense as a safety.”
“The great thing about Loyola is people from all over California went there,” said Evans. “Adam (Pilapil) lived by the beach, and I live close to downtown. For me, I was only about 15 minutes from school, but people would come from two hours away to go to school there. It was crazy to see how far people would commute to get there.
“On our football team, we had a lot of guys with individual success but it was a shame we were never able to put it together as a team. We had a lot of guys go on and play at different Division I schools.”
After their four-year career together in high school, Evans was getting recruited by a number of Division I programs, while Pilapil was just looking for an opportunity to play at the NCAA Division I level as a walk-on if need be.
“Our coach, Marvin Sanders, came to me and told me that he had a friend, Steve Stanard, who might be getting a job at Wyoming, and they were really interested in me,” said Evans. “I thought okay, Wyoming, let’s do it. I was hungry for a Division I offer.
“When the opportunity came for me to come up here (to Wyoming ) for a visit, I was really impressed. Coming from L.A., you don’t hear a lot about Wyoming and what it has to offer. I told my coach I was going to commit.”
Evans still remembers that original trip to Laramie and one of his other current teammates, Chavez Pownell Jr., who came all the way from Tampa, Fla.
“Chavez (Pownell Jr.) was on the same visit with me and Shaun Wick was my host. I know Chavez was surprised to be in Wyoming too, with him being from Florida.”
It wasn’t until weeks after Evans committed to the Cowboys that he found out his high school teammate Pilapil may also be going to Wyoming.
“It was a few weeks after I made my decision to come to Wyoming that I heard there was a possibility that Adam was going to come, so I got in his ear and said, ‘Come on, let’s go. We can go to Wyoming together.’ I thought it would be great to have someone I knew come on this journey with me.”
Former Cowboy Defensive Coordinator Stanard, who is now the defensive ends coach at Syracuse, and Loyola Head Coach Sanders had been teammates together at the University of Nebraska in the late 80s. There is also another Loyola tie to Wyoming’s coaching staff in current Wyoming Director of Recruiting Justin Mesa, who was the offensive coordinator at Loyola from the 2013-15 seasons. Mesa moved on to Dixie State University in 2016 as the wide receivers coach before joining the Wyoming staff as Director of Recruiting in the summer of 2017.
For Evans, it was a dream come true to receive a scholarship offer from an NCAA Division I program. For Pilapil, it was a dream to just get the opportunity to walk on at a D1 school.
“Nico was getting recruited by some Division I schools. I wasn’t really getting recruited by any D1 schools. There were some great schools talking with me that I really appreciated but they were at lower divisions,” said Pilapil. “Nico got an offer from Wyoming, and our head coach, Marvin Sanders, and another one of our coaches, Justin Mesa who now works here at Wyoming, set up a little bit of a workout for seniors like myself, who hadn’t gotten a lot of recruiting attention.
“Coach Stanard was there because he was in to do his home visit with Nico. I was actually running some routes as a receiver, and I made a couple catches and Coach Stanard talked to me afterwards and said he would look at my film. I wasn’t really expecting much. I was hoping something would work out, but I knew they were there for Nico.
“After awhile, Coach Sanders told me to stay in touch with Coach Stanard and Wyoming and let them know how interested I was. So I would call once in awhile, starting in February. I spoke with Coach Stanard toward the end of May, and he said it looked like they were going to have room for me to walk on, whether it was at the start of fall camp or at the start of school. Then like two days after I graduated from high school, we talked again and he said they had a spot for me to come at the beginning of fall camp if I wanted. I was like ‘of course I’m coming it’s a Division I school.’ He said to call him back in about a week to confirm, so I called him back exactly a week later and said ‘I’m coming up.’
“But had it not been for Nico and some of the relationships my high school coaches had with these coaches I would probably be far away from here.”
When Pilapil originally arrived at Wyoming as a walk-on in the summer of 2014 he was slotted at wide receiver, then was moved to safety and after redshirting the 2014 season, he started one game at safety in 2015. He would later be asked to move to linebacker where he now is perhaps the most versatile member of the Cowboy linebacking corps. After his redshirt freshman season, Pilapil also earned a scholarship. It has been quite a transition.
“When I came in as a freshman walk-on there was a group of several walk-ons. I think Marcus (Epps, senior safety) and I are the only ones left from that group,” said Pilapil. “This program was in a little different shape when we first got here. My attitude when I came in was I was going to work my tail off and if I earned a scholarship by the time I was a senior I would be stoked. I just wanted to be part of a Division I program.
“The thing that was special from the first day we came into the program as walk-ons was we were never treated any differently than anybody else on the team. We found out that if you continue to put in the work on and off the field Coach (Craig) Bohl will recognize that. He’s definitely not giving away free scholarships here, but if you work hard and show him you can contribute to the team you can earn a scholarship. It has been an extremely rewarding experience. I joke that when I did earn my scholarship it was my first true recruiting offer.”
Coming in as a walk-on and then earning a scholarship, how does Pilapil see his current role on the Cowboy defense?
“I think I see my role as a guy who basically helps out where needed,” said Pilapil. “When a guy goes down or when a guy needs a break, if I can come in and help our defense then that is what I want to do. Me being able to play both the MIKE and WILL linebacker positions it helps guys get some reps off and by games 10, 11 or 12 they’re not feeling the same burden they had in years past.
“When they asked me to move to linebacker, it didn’t matter where they asked me to play. I just wanted to play and help out the team. I moved at the same time that Logan (Wilson) moved from safety to linebacker, so I knew I had someone to do it with and learn with. It was just more fun and an opportunity to learn another position.”
Evans, like his teammate Pilapil, has also been a ‘team guy’ throughout his career. Both play special teams, and both have done whatever it takes to help the Cowboys win.
“That is a common thing between me and Adam,” said Evans. “We’ll fill whatever role we need to. All we care about is winning. Whatever this team needs us to do, that’s what we’re going to do. Adam went from receiver, to safety, to linebacker and plays a lot of special teams. For me, when I was a younger player in the program I played the role as kind of the four-minute back to run the clock out at the end of a game when Shaun (Wick) and Brian (Hill) were here, to last year being the third-down back and playing special teams.”
Talking about being the third-down back, do you take pride in being that guy to come in on critical third-down situations and help pass protect for the quarterback or make a big play catching a pass or making a big run?
“I take pride in any role I fill on this team, but that one especially because I know that third downs are critical situations when we need to get a first down,” said Evans. “If I can go out, catch a pass and get that first down to keep a drive going, I know just how crucial that is.
“Definitely when it comes to pass protection, I take a lot of pride in that. We had Josh (Allen) back there last year, and we needed to keep that guy protected, so he could make big plays. I definitely took pride in that.”
Not only is Pilapil the most versatile linebacker for the Pokes, but he has earned the reputation as being one of the most intelligent Cowboy defenders. What is his secret to having such a good understanding of the Cowboy defense?
“With the mental aspect of the game, if Logan (Wilson) has a question he can come to me. If Cassh (Maluia) has a question he can come to me,” said Pilapil. “What happens in the middle of some games is they don’t have to be asking each other stuff, they can just come to me or Coach (Scottie) Hazelton. I just see myself as a guy who can help the team in a variety of ways.
“I think the way I have been able to learn a lot about football is this will be the first time I will have the same position coach in back to back years in my entire football career. Since I’ve been playing football, starting in first grade, I’ve never had the same position coach two years in a row. So I’ve learned from a lot of different people, and I’ve played a lot of different positions. I just like to learn as much as I can about football.”
Being Part of Turning Wyoming Football into a Winning Program
When Pilapil and Evans first arrived at Wyoming, they were playing for a coaching staff in their first year leading the Cowboys. What has it been like to be part of a group of players who helped rejuvenate Wyoming Football?
“It’s been pretty cool,” said Pilapil. “I was thinking about it the other day, from where we came from, going 2-10 and celebrating the UNLV win in the last game of the 2015 season like it was our Super Bowl, to where we are now, trying to go to our third consecutive bowl game. I think the core of this team learned from that. I kind of joke that there are a lot of 2-10 guys on this team and we still remember that. That is why every win is still special to us. We cherish every victory because there are a lot of us who remember those 2-10 and 4-8 seasons, when we were getting it kicked in on us.
“Now we’re kind of repaying that to those teams. It’s been really cool to be a part of it. I could have never envisioned it, but I always know that Coach Bohl envisioned it. He’s always said, ‘Those who stay will be champions.’ From the day I walked in here, I saw that on the door. Now we’ve put ourselves in a position to make that a possibility.”
When Evans was asked what it has meant to him to be a part of this successful turnaround, he said, “It means so much. I remember on my visit, Coach Bohl told us how he wanted to change this program and he asked us to buy in to that.
“I remember how hard that first fall camp was and how hard the season was. We went 4-8 and there were a lot of guys who left, but we stuck through it. The next year, we went 2-10, but we just kept working, and working and working.
“Then the next year when we got to the (Mountain West) championship game and our first bowl game, we were all like, ‘OK, our work is finally starting to play off.’ All the summer conditioning, the winter conditioning, how hard every single strength coach we’ve had pushed us, it’s just great to see that we’re in this position now because of all the hard work that we’ve put into this program. Not only me and Adam, but all the other guys who came in and bought in.”
As they enter their senior season, what has it been like to be a part of that first Wyoming recruiting class during the Bohl era — a class that helped change the culture and the expectations for Wyoming Football?
“It did take time,” said Evans. “People try to say that first class was just a random put together class, but we have some guys who can play ball in our class.
“It took time to change our mentality. We all knew we had talent. We knew we had to approach this as adults — be serious about the game. We have guys who are really committed to the program. We’re focused on putting ourselves in the best position to win.”
What are some of your greatest memories from your time at Wyoming?
“Definitely, winning the Idaho Potato Bowl — that was one of my greatest memories,” said Evans. “I’ll never forget Josh (Allen) throwing the potatoes out to the crowd.
“The moment I knew this program was turning around was when we won our second game in the 2-10 season (2015). When we won that last game of the season (against UNLV), everyone kind of had this feeling that next year is going to be different. We’ve taken that first step in changing this program. That was a big moment to me.”
What are your most memorable individual plays from your time here?
“I know we didn’t win this game, but we were trying to come back against Fresno (State),” said Evans. “We were driving down during the two-minute drill. Nick (Smith) threw me the ball, and I was able to punch it in and score. Then our defense made a stop, and we were driving down and everyone on our team believed we were going to win that game but we came up a little short. That was one big-play moment I can remember. Against Air Force, I was able to get a crucial first down at the end of the game to kind of seal it.
“Talking about those times kind of gives me goose bumps. It makes me want to go out and play a game right now. Making those big plays and doing it for your team that is what it’s all about.”
At Home in Wyoming
Now that the two L.A. natives are concluding their fifth year as Cowboys, do they feel like they’re at home now in Wyoming?
“When I first got up here, I would think to myself the second I get a break I’m going home,” said Pilapil. “I still love going home, but now, if I have a week off or have a little bit of down time I might just decide to stay in Laramie. I’ve learned a lot about the community, and I think as you get older within the program you know more guys on the team and you learn how to have fun together as teammates. It’s definitely become more of a home for me.”
“Definitely, but I’m still not wearing the Cowboy boots,” laughs Evans. “Being from L.A., I didn’t know much about Wyoming before I came here. But being able to go through this with Adam has made it a lot easier. Going to Jubilee Days or just walking around Laramie and being able to experience the culture it’s really been an amazing time. I never thought I would have an experience like this, but I’m so happy I’m here and the people have been so great to me.”
Asked if he and his teammate Evans talk about their journey together from high school to now, Pilapil said, “Oh yeah. From the time we were teammates in high school to now, in a lot of ways things haven’t changed. We still joke around about our high school days. It’s cool to have gone to high school with this guy and then grown together — it’s going to be nine years in a row playing on the same football team.
“To have a guy like Nico, who knows what I’ve been through, and I know what he’s been through — we can relate to each other. The fact that we came to college together is pretty unique and to have this journey with him has been very special.”