Less than a week removed from a slow start against Laramie, the Natrona County Mustangs were back to preparing for their next game.
The quarterfinal hadn’t gone the way they entirely expected to — a 6-6 score in the second quarter was not in the game plan — but the Mustangs defense hunkered down and put the brakes on the Plainsmen.
Laramie came out in an entirely different defense than what it had been shown before, which caused problems for Natrona County.
It wasn’t until after having faced it for a few drives that the Mustangs were able to properly attack and exploit its weaknesses.
Banged up in some spots and slightly bruised, Natrona County (9-1) now sets its full attention on its semifinal opponent Cheyenne East (8-2).
“We’ve had kind of a tough week of practice,” head coach Steve Harshman said. “Physically, we’ve been knocked down a little bit and we knew that, that’s part of the process.”
The Mustangs are no stranger to the Thunderbirds. Six weeks ago, which is an eternity in high school football, the T-Birds visited Cheney Alumni Field and gave the Mustangs all they could handle before falling 14-7. It came down to a late fourth-quarter stand by the Natrona County defense.
In their regular season finale, an early deficit put the T-Birds in a hole against two-time defending state champion Sheridan and the Broncs rode to victory from there. With a different start to that game, or a different ending against Natrona County, East would have been in the mix for the top seed.
“That’s all part of the process and you have to put that together on a Friday night,” Harshman said. “You have to play a complete game.”
Natrona County expects to see a similar package from East that it saw in the first game. With a dynamic offense, led by utility back Ethan Ashworth and quarterback Mat Semlar, the T-Birds are capable of scoring against anyone.
The seven points the Mustangs held them to earlier this season was East’s lowest output in more than two years.
However, Harshman does expect to see a few things on Friday night that the Mustangs didn’t see the first time or have yet to see on film.
“Some of it you have to adjust what they give you, plan for stuff,” he said. “Everybody is bringing something new that you have to plan for.”
The Mustangs’ offensive and defensive lines will need to control the line of scrimmage from the opening kickoff.
East had success in the first meeting because of penetration by defensive tackle Gunner Bartlett. The senior standout troubled NC quarterback Jesse Harshman on dropbacks and he forced running back Brett Brenton to take wider angles when attacking the defense.
Natrona County eventually solved that issue in the second half. But the Mustangs cannot allow another half of football to go by expecting East to be held scoreless.
The Mustangs’ plans for Friday revolve around, as they did much of the year, a healthy mix of rushes and passes. The running game has matured on the strength of Brenton’s legs and Jesse Harshman’s ability to read a defense. But neither of those things can happen of Barlett and the T-Birds get penetration.
Natrona County’s longtime head coach remembered seeing East on film and believing they adequately scouted for it. Then came kickoff and the Mustangs needed to adjust.
“Everybody looks a step slower on film, but when you see them in person you say, ‘Boy, those kids are fast.’ And they were fast,” Harshman said. “I thought they had really good team speed and they do a nice job up front.”
Last year in the semifinals the Mustangs went on the road to Gillette as significant underdogs to the top-ranked Camels and walked out with a ticket to War Memorial Stadium.
Now, no one is underestimating Natrona County. Through the fire of a tough schedule and a lifetime of maturity since the 30-0 loss to the T-Birds last season, the Mustangs are ready to roll.
“We have all those things that teams battle through,” Harshman said, “we’ve done that and we’re going to keep on trucking.”