Friday night’s second-half kickoff at Cheney Alumni Field drove Natrona County junior Isaac Palomo back to his own 1. He corralled it and looked upfield.
“I just caught it and all my blockers did the work from there,” Palomo said. “Easiest job in the world: just run. The gaps were huge, it was all on the blockers.”
The return specialist weaved through midfield and cut toward the home sidelines. He beat the kicker’s angle and outran the Plainsmen to jump-start the Mustangs. His meandering 99-yard touchdown return did as much in 15 seconds as the Mustangs offense did in the preceding 24 minutes of Friday’s 37-14 victory against Laramie. And for the second week in a row the Mustangs were powered by their special teams.
Natrona County (4-0 Class 4A) blocked Laramie’s first two punts of the game — giving the Mustangs three blocks in two weeks — to start in prime field position. But capitalizing on that field position proved to be an issue.
The first block trickled out to the sidelines, where the Plainsmen (2-2) were able to pick it up and advance to save yards. Natrona County’s offense couldn’t convert.
Jonathan True broke through the line and blocked Laramie’s punt on the ensuing drive. The ball hit off the junior’s forearms and went rolling backwards and ultimately settled at the Laramie 17.
“It opened up for me,” True said. “I went right through the middle and I was on myself saying if I didn’t block this thing coach would be on me. Got through there, saw the ball, blocked it.”
True didn’t initially see where the ball went so by the time he tracked it he couldn’t pick it up for a return. Instead he jumped on it to set up a touchdown drive capped by a 3-yard Wyatt Yetter run.
The Natrona County offense remained held in check for the majority of the first half. Luckily for the Mustangs, the top defense in Class 4A didn’t budge.
Hunter Brandt broke through the Laramie line and tipped an attempted pitch from quarterback Jason Upton to running back Baxter Tuggle. Brandt jumped on the rolling ball at the Laramie 19. The Mustangs settled for a 7-yard field goal from Jhett George.
“They are a tough team,” Natrona County head coach Steve Harshman said of Laramie. “They are tough, physical.”
George then recovered his own onside kick. That drive went nowhere but the punt pinned Laramie inside its own 3. Then the Mustang defense got on the scoreboard when junior Karl Williams dove on a fumble in the end zone following a low snap.
The two offenses combined for two first downs and five punts in the first 19 minutes of the game. That’s when quarterback Kade Stoner marched the Mustangs down the field. Natrona County gained as many first downs on that drive as it had the rest of the first half (three) until a holding penalty stalled momentum. That drive — and the half — ended with a quick kick on third down.
Laramie’s offense, which had two of 4A’s five best performances so far this season, had just 40 total yards by halftime.
“We were more confident in ourselves and we were all zoned in on our assignments,” True said. “We were ready for what we were supposed to do.”
Palomo’s exciting kick return awoke the Mustangs. Natrona County bruised its way into Laramie territory when junior Dante Wallace scored his first touchdown of the evening. Wallace broke through an opening to the Laramie secondary and ran into a pile at the 10. He emerged through the other side for the 27-yard score.
Not to be shut out, Laramie took advantage of a miscommunication on the following drive. Upton found receiver Preston Buszkiewic all alone in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown pass.
The two teams traded touchdowns from there, Wallace on the ground for the Mustangs, another Upton pass for the Plainsmen.
Laramie’s final touchdown came against Natrona County’s junior varsity. Apart from a lapse in assignment, the Mustang defense acted as a blanket against one of the state’s most dynamic offenses.
“I thought our guys really tackled well, pursued well, and just didn’t give them a chance to get the thing opened up,” Harshman said. “It was really a great defensive effort tonight.”
NATRONA COUNTY 37, LARAMIE 14
Friday, at Casper
Lar 0 0 7 7 14
NC 7 9 x x x
NC: Wyatt Yetter 3 run (Jhett George kick), 2:28.
NC: Jhett George 30 FG, 8:19.
NC: Karl Williams fumble recovery in end zone (kick failed), 4:34.
NC: Isaac Palomo 99 kickoff return (George kick), 11:45.
NC: Jordan Bertagnole 44 pass from Kade Stoner (George kick) 8:29.
Lar: Preston Buszkiewic 15 pass from Jason Upton (kick good), 5:47.
NC: Dante Wallace 27 run (George kick), 3:14.
Lar: Brady Epler 9 pass from Upton (kick good), 1:57.