Big Horn and Cokeville are no strangers to War Memorial Stadium.
Saturday, the Rams will be making their sixth appearance at the home of the Wyoming Cowboys while the Panthers will be playing there for a fifth time. However, this will be the first time the two programs have faced off on the Jonah Field turf when they play for the Wyoming State High School Class 1A/11-man Football Championship.
Big Horn (10-0), which lost to Pine Bluffs in last year’s 1A/11-man championship game, is 2-3 all-time at War Memorial. Cokeville (10-0), meanwhile, is a perfect 4-0.
“When you talk about Cokeville you have to start with their legendary coach,” first-year Big Horn coach Kirk McLaughlin said in reference to the Panthers’ Todd Dayton. “He’s been around a long time and he’s won a lot of football games. And he’s won a lot of football games because he’s a great coach.”
No one would dispute that statement. Now in his 39th year at Cokeville, Dayton is 324-61 for his career and has won 20 state championships.
“Every time I’ve watched film on Cokeville his kids are the most disciplined on the field and they out-execute their opponents,” McLaughlin said.
Added Big Horn senior Kade VanDyken: “Our coaches have stressed all week just how disciplined of a team Cokeville is, so we can’t make mistakes. And if they make a mistake we have to be ready to capitalize on it.”
Dayton had similar praise for the Rams.
“We’re in for a dog fight,” he said. “There are no weak links on that team and every one of their kids is a solid football player. We’re going to have to win individual battles because they don’t make mistakes on offense.”
Dayton knows that slowing down the Big Horn offense will be a challenge. The Rams lead the classification in rushing (262.1 yards per game), passing (160.2 ypg) and, of course, total offense (422.3 ypg).
With senior running back Kade Eisele (1,281 yards, 21 touchdowns), junior Will Pelissier (1,235 all-purpose yards, 14 TDs), VanDyken (22 catches for 476 yards and 11 scores) and junior quarterback Quinn McCafferty (1,500 yards and 25 TDs with just two interceptions), the Rams have rarely been tested this season. Big Horn is outscoring opponents by an average of 40.2 points per game and its closest margin of victory was 32 points.
“We have multiple weapons so I don’t think a team can focus on one guy,” McLaughlin said. “We can move the ball several different ways and we have the line that can block different ways.”
But if any team is going to slow down the Big Horn offense it figures to be Cokeville. The Panthers lead 1A/11-man in run defense and total defense and have forced a state-best 36 turnovers.
When the teams met in last year’s semifinals, Cokeville shut down the Big Horn offense but lost 12-7. Still, Dayton believes the loss could prove beneficial Saturday.
“It helps our kids and it really helps our coaches,” he said. “We are better able to game plan having played them one time. You don’t realize how big they are until you line up against them.”
Of course, Cokeville has also impressed this season. Despite having to fill out its schedule with junior varsity teams because teams in the West Conference were lacking numbers this season, the Panthers’ only close calls came in victories over 2A schools Mountain View (20-13 in the season opener) and Lyman (14-6).
“It’s been a real struggle for us with the schedule,” Dayton said. “Last week (a 25-6 victory over Upton-Sundance in the semifinals) and the first week of the year were about the only times we played a full ballgame. Our younger kids got to play the second half in just about every game we played. That makes it tough keeping your kids in shape.”
So while Cokeville might not have the offensive numbers that the Rams have, the Panthers do have talent throughout their lineup.
Senior quarterback Bentley Johnson ran for 715 yards and nine touchdowns and threw for 545 yards and 11 scores. And seniors Lochlyn Teichert and Ammon Teichert combined for almost 1,700 all-purpose yards and 29 TDs. Defensively, the Panthers had 67 tackles for loss and scored seven touchdowns.
“We’re going to do what we do well, we’re not going to change,” Dayton said. “We’re going to come at them. We have to force turnovers and take advantage when they make a mistake.
“It’s a great challenge for us and we’re looking forward to it.”