The third quarter whistle blew on Friday night and the Natrona County Mustangs each held four fingers up, signalling the fourth quarter. It’s a gesture done by a lot of football teams across the country, from pee wee to the NFL, but this time was different.
Four fingers raised toward a full moon at Cheney Alumni Field symbolized the final stretch. The little bit of road left to be paved on the highway to greatness and Wyoming high school football immortality. The final chorus to a song that fans sung along to during the Mustangs’ thorough 44-0 victory over Cheyenne East in their semifinal game.
Natrona County junior linebacker Chase Brachtenbach, along with his teammates, gazed at the scoreboard. The Mustangs led 37-0.
“This is our time,” Brachtenbach shouted to the sidelines. “It’s us.”
For nearly a full year the Mustangs have been plagued by the loss at the end of last season. An underdog season and a furious comeback fell short in the championship game against Sheridan. The fours were pointed high then but the Mustangs weren’t able to finish.
On the doorstep of a return trip to Laramie and the confines of War Memorial Stadium, Natrona County would not be denied an opportunity for redemption.
“We wanted it bad,” Brachtenbach said. “That was our goal all season and we just took it week by week. This was the final week before it so we just had to win it.”
The junior field general helped the Mustangs limit a potent offense from kickoff to cannon. With speed and precision, he and the rest of the defense frustrated East immediately and forced the Thundebirds into desperation mode.
Passing wasn’t working, quarterback Mat Semler didn’t have time to step and throw without an orange jersey planting him to the turf. Rushing wasn’t working, either, as standout Ethan Ashworth was dropped for losses on four carries in East’s first three possessions.
By the midway point in the second quarter the T-Birds grasped for the kitchen sink.
A halfback pass was overthrown by Ashworth. A fake reverse on a punt return went for a moderate gain, but a holding penalty brought it back. East tried the throwback pass on a kick return but the pass was illegally thrown forward and incomplete. Dakota Merritt tucked a rugby-style punt and ran for the corner but Brachtenbach got to him.
None of those plays gained the desired first down or anything more than 7 yards.
That’s all East could do. The T-Birds moved the chains four times in the first half, three of them on the opening drive and the final coming on the half’s final drive. East gained a total of 72 yards and were penalized 60 in the first half.
“We were just playing fast,” Brachtenbach said. “We were just filling every gap, playing fast, hitting hard and just reading.”
Brett Brenton returned to his dissection of the T-Bird defense in the second half. The leading rusher in Class 4A galloped for 66 yards on his first four carries of the second half, setting quarterback Jesse Harshman up for touchdown passes on consecutive drives. Riley Shepperson scored on the slant-and-go route before Maeson Gallegos fooled his defender with a double-move and was wide open in the end zone.
The cannon at the end of Cheney Alumni Field’s north end zone sounded as the Natrona County junior varsity defense swarmed yet another Cheyenne East quarterback. The home crowd roared just before the snap and never wavered until the final punctuation mark on East’s season and football at Mustang Stadium until next August.
For the fifth time in six years, Natrona County’s season will end at War Memorial Stadium.
Brachtenbach was injured in last year’s semifinal upset over Gillette and was not able to play in the ensuing state championship.
Not only do the Mustangs get a third shot at Sheridan in the past two seasons, this time Brachtenbach gets to play in it.
“Coming out this year and being able to make state,” Brachtenbach said between holding back tears, “it’s just the greatest feeling I’ve ever felt.”
FRIDAY: Natrona County 44, Cheyenne East 0
RECORDS: Mustangs (10-1 Class 4A) Thunderbirds (8-3 4A).
BACK AGAIN: The Mustangs advanced to the state championship game for the fifth time in six seasons.
HE SAID IT: “That was our goal all season and we just took it week by week. This was the final week before it so we just had to win it.” — NC junior linebacker Chase Brachtenbach.
NEXT: State championship vs. Sheridan, Nov. 11, 4 p.m.
NATRONA COUNTY 44, CHEYENNE EAST 0
Friday, at Casper
CE 0 0 0 0 0
NC 14 9 14 7 44
NC: Brett Brenton 10 run (Riley Shepperson kick)
NC: Brenton 11 run (Shepperson kick)
NC: Shepperson 48 FG
NC: Chase Brachtenbach blocked punt recovery (kick blocked)
NC: Shepperson 19 pass from Jesse Harshman (Shepperson kick)
NC: Mason Gallegos 17 pass from Harshman (Shepperson kick)
NC: Dante Wallace 21 run (Shepperson kick)