Football practices have already begun for Wyoming’s largest classification. By the time the sun sets on the upcoming forecasted blistering mid-August Monday, the rest of the state will have followed suite. That’s cause for celebration.
The most recent Wyoming high school football news has been negative. Schools like Saratoga and Ten Sleep have already forfeited their seasons while some akin to Wyoming Indian — which has not completed a full season the last two years — will wait until the first practice to know their 2018 fate. Participation in football has declined nationwide and Wyoming’s shrinking populous only intensifies problems of fielding a healthy 11 players for an entire autumn under lights.
That means the ultimate prize, and the culminating series of Friday battles to come before it, remains for those select few left standing. In order to hoist gold, to drive communities from around Wyoming around the midfield steamboat brand on Jonah Field, to leave War Memorial Stadium as champions, means to remain one of the last standing for the final eight playoff spots in each class and survive each rung on the postseason ladder. That journey has already begun for some. Now the rest of Wyoming catches up.
Here is a scratching of the surface for what lay ahead in each classification with less than two weeks before kickoff.
Let the Jeff Mowry-era begin. One of Don Julian’s long-time apprentices takes over as head coach of the three-time defending champion Sheridan Broncs. An unprecedented fourth consecutive could be on the horizon as the Broncs return Wyoming commit Parker Christensen and running back/linebacker Garrett Coon.
Lurking elsewhere is always Natrona County, who returns defensive anchor Chase Brachtenbach as well as running back Dante Wallace and receiver Tehl Campbell. Kelly Walsh may be the early favorite over its crosstown rival, however, returning Super 25 selection Brock Spiegelberg and the lineman duo of Connor Shopp and Kameron Mellon.
Cheyenne East returns talent at the skill positions, Thunder Basin now has a rhythm after one season in the history books, Laramie has the power to surprise, Rock Springs will be a year older and Cheyenne Central could make the leap this season. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what Micah Christensen has the Gillette Camels looking like in his second season.
Cody’s colossal upset over Star Valley in the semifinals made the Broncs’ run to the state championship possible. The Braves had been a favorite to return to War Memorial all season. That expectation remained until the final whistle in that semifinal game. They both enter 2018 among a field of worthy contenders for the championship.
Also in that field is Torrington, last year’s state runner-up who returns multiple all-state selections including standout Bryan Lemmon. There’s also Green River, Douglas, Evanston and Rawlins, all of whom showed moments of promise last season and could put it all together this fall.
There may be no defender in Class 3A in 2018 better than Green River’s Anthony Mitchell. He impressed last year for the Wolves and will be leaned on heavily if they want to return to that level. Then there’s Riverton’s Treyton Paxton who was second in terms of all-purpose offense in 3A last year. He loses his top two targets however, so it could take some time for the Wolverines to figure out their air game.
Mountain View would be the overwhelming favorite to repeat if it weren’t for Glenrock’s constant presence and Buffalo’s drop from Class 3A. In fact, the addition of the Bison makes this year’s 2A field one of the most interesting in recent memory. Buffalo had the fourth-best defense last year in 3A and return quarterback Luke Glassock as well as utility back Cody Milmine.
The defending champions return offensive weapons Braeden Walk and Kimball Madsen, as well as defensive standout Colby Rees, which makes the Buffaloes all the more dangerous going into this fall.
Glenrock’s offensive line will lose some bodies but the tandem of Tucker Bopp and Ian Arnold remains a potent one-two punch. Those two were the workhorses for the Herders’ run-revolving offense and should remain that again.
Then you have the outliers of Greybull, Pinedale, Wheatland, Big Piney and Newcastle for the other semifinal spot. Perhaps, one of them can catch fire at the right time and end up strutting off Jonah Field.
Last year’s state championship game between Pine Bluffs and Big Horn had been weeks, even months, in the making. That four-quarter battle lived up to its billing on a chilly November morning in Laramie. Now, the two-time defending champion Hornets’ stronghold on the title isn’t such a sure thing.
Big Horn is the heir to the throne, having departed no one from last year’s runner-up team. Super 25 selections Kade Eisele and Seth Mullinax highlight a talented returning class that also includes Will Pellisier. Mullinax has attracted attention from Nebraska and more colleges will likely be on the hunt this fall.
Having lost some serious firepower, Cokeville may take some time to regain its footing. The Panthers still standout as the leader in the West Conference. However, that entire conference could be dealt a blow if Wyoming Indian joins Saratoga in absentia. That would force two open weeks in the middle of the conference schedule for all teams, right when each program would prefer to be battle-tested going into the playoff push.
The most dominant run in 6-man history may be in danger of ending. Kaycee has won 30 straight games, which includes three state championships. The Buckaroos can break the state record with 35 by remaining undefeated through the game at Hulett (Laramie holds the 34-game winning streak from 1959-63).
Hunter Rouse is the go-to man for the Buckaroos this season and will likely be tasked with the heavy lifting. Tony Rouse returns as head coach for the second straight year. They have the formula and will likely be the talk of the East Conference, but it’s the West that may put a stop to the Kaycee era.
At last, it could be Farson-Eden’s year. Both Lain Mitchelson and Clancy Gines return to lead the two-time runner-ups back for one more chance at gold. That’s if the Pronghorns can hold off a charge from upstart Burlington and lingering Snake River, albeit with a younger team.