Temperatures around the final week of football practice have hovered between the high 30s and the low 40s. Or, as Natrona County head football coach Steve Harshman described it, “really outstanding.”
Preparations for the Wyoming State High School Class 4A Football Championship have not come without retraces of the 2014 title game that Harshman will never able able to wipe from his memory.
The Mustangs won that game 30-7 over Gillette, but it was the weather that made it stand apart.
“That was the coldest football game ever played in the continental United States,” Harshman recalled. “I don’t think anybody has ever played a game where it was dipping into 30-below at the end of the game.”
That was the final competitive game that Josh Harshman and Logan Wilson played as high school students. Both former Natrona County standouts now call War Memorial Stadium home as members of the Wyoming Cowboys.
Those two, along with five other seniors from that team that went on to play college football, are still responsible for Natrona County’s most recent state championship. On the sidelines of that arctic game was a young freshman class, whose expectations were immediately set 7,220 feet high.
A young Jesse Harshman watched his older brother disrupt offenses at linebacker and split time at quarterback. Brett Brenton learned from watching Stevann Brown run for 1,027 yards and 19 touchdowns. Riley Shepperson was an impressionable playmaker as he watched a defense that allowed just nine touchdowns all year and forced 35 turnovers.
Most importantly, they all watched an incredibly talented group win a state title.
“I think our seniors over the years have done a great job with leading the team and then mentoring these younger guys and showing them the right way to do it,” Steve Harshman said. “It matters in a young person’s life. You’ve got a young person going from 14-18, that’s a lot of growth in those years.”
Now, each one of those wide-eyed freshmen are determined seniors with just one final high school game remaining.
Like the seniors that influenced them, Natrona County’s current leadership group has allowed the least amount of touchdowns in Class 4A (12). Unlike that 2014 team, however, the results have not come solely from the state’s top defense in terms of yardage or points per game.
Natrona County also has the best offense in Class 4A this year by averaging 421.5 yards per game with 64 touchdowns. Brenton is the leading rusher with 150 yards per game and 24 touchdowns while Jesse Harshman leads the class with 1,840 passing yards and 22 touchdowns. They are first and second, respectively, in all-purpose yards.
Both are miles ahead of where they were in their first games as starters, the start of the 2016 season. The Mustangs were statistically the worst team in the state through the first two games and were outscored 35-0.
A big reason for the turnaround from 0-2 to Jonah Field, coach Harshman said, was because of the seniors who don’t see varsity playing time. Jared Siedschlag, Brock Tille, Kyler Halverson, Tanner Smith, Cole Thorpen were freshmen on that 2014 team as well. Their biggest contributions to the team aren’t found on Friday nights.
“In practice we’re playing a lot of football on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and we’re making everyone better,” the 27th-year head coach said. “It’s a lot of great competition and when you get that thing going, it’s a lot of fun.”
Together, with honorary senior and actual junior Chase Brachtenbach, this class has one final chance to bring home its own state championship. To do that, they will have to beat the team they have never defeated as starters.
Harshman described Sheridan as a complete team with “the most dynamic backfield duo in the state that I’ve seen in many, many years.” Both Kyle Custis and Parker Christensen scored against Natrona County earlier this season in the Broncs’ 37-34 overtime victory.
Natrona County tallied 524 yards of total offense in that game, but two interceptions inside the Sheridan 30 and a fourth-quarter punt return for a touchdown left the Mustangs ruing their mistakes.
As freshmen they finished at the top but it wasn’t “their championship.” As sophomores they watched Sheridan eliminate the Mustangs 35-10 in the semifinals. As juniors, their second-half comeback fell apart in the fourth quarter as Sheridan pulled away.
Now, the Natrona County Class of 2018 is tasked with a feat no Mustang team has accomplished since their frigid freshman-idol 2014 team: beat Sheridan.
“Sometimes it will all pull together and happen if everyone hangs together,” Harshman said. “These guys have done that. They’ve certainly had their ups and downs and fought through that to become a pretty good football team.”