This year’s regular-season meeting between Natrona County and Sheridan was not the established norm. The Mustangs blocked two punts, the Broncs fumbled snaps and, most importantly, Natrona County won going away.
Natrona County won 34-7 back in Week 2. That was the first time since the 2014 semifinals (27-0) that the Mustangs had defeated Sheridan. If a similar game unfolds after Saturday’s 4 p.m. kickoff, it’ll be shocking.
For the third consecutive year it will be the Mustangs and Broncs clashing for gold as the two converge upon War Memorial Stadium yet again for the 2018 Wyoming State High School Class 4A Football Championship. It promises to be a much more competitive game as both sides are two months removed from that rare Sheridan misfire.
“It’s never fun to lose, but taking those lumps in the middle of the season was a good thing,” Sheridan head coach Jeff Mowry said. “The kids kind of reflected on how we were practicing and the kids have done a good job of improving each week.”
The same can be said for the Mustangs.
“I think we’re just executing better and everyone’s skills have improved,” Natrona County head coach Steve Harshman said. “We’re stronger, in better shape, all those kind of things.”
Harshman added that the Mustangs were hampered by injuries during the season. This has allowed them to develop depth, which could come in handy this weekend. Most notably is senior quarterback Kade Stoner’s lingering ankle injury he originally suffered in the Oil Bowl. He’s played in both playoff games since, although he’s sometimes been pulled from offensive snaps in favor of playing more snaps on defense. Barring any major shake-ups he’ll be the starter on Saturday.
Sheridan has suffered its share of injuries as well, and just as drastic. Senior running back Parker Christensen exited that regular season game against Natrona County with an injury after just six touches. He didn’t suit up against Thunder Basin the next week. Those were the Broncs’ only two losses. Christensen returned after that and the Broncs haven’t lost since.
“A couple things happened when Parker had to sit out,” Mowry said. “It allowed him to heal and it showed the team they were able to compete without Parker. Against Thunder Basin we were only 10 points down and we didn’t have Parker Christensen, who led this senior class since they were in seventh grade.
“It’s usually been, ‘Parker left. Parker right.’ But they showed that they can do this.”
Christensen has been an all-purpose threat for the Broncs, averaging 90.3 of his 159.5 all-purpose yards on the ground. He’s also scored 21 touchdowns, which includes taking two kick returns to pay dirt. Christensen became the first known commit for the Wyoming Cowboys 2019 signing class when he committed before the season began.
“He looks really in good shape, he looks strong and fast,” Harshman said of Christensen. “I think he’s just gotten a lot better as the season’s gone on, they’re running him downhill more. Him coming at you with his shoulder pads is pretty formidable and if you don’t tackle him he’ll outrun you.”
Aside from the spotlight on Christensen, junior linebacker Garrett Coon has powered the Sheridan defense for the past two seasons and is a quality player in his own right.
“He makes his reads really well and he trusts our coaching,” Mowry said. “He responds, he gets to that pass-drop text book. He has the opportunity to make big plays and it’s just a testament to his coachability and work ethic.”
Natrona County counters with an experienced line. While Sheridan returned just one starter on either line from last year, the Mustangs returned three consistent linemen and turned two into consistent linemen this season. Senior Brendon Gustavson switched from fullback to center this year and senior Josh Corr has surprised in his development.
“Those guys have really grown and shown themselves,” Harshman said of the two new faces. “The other guys played last year and they continue to improve.”
Across the board, this morphs into a championship game to remember. But while these two met in the previous two championship games, there is one considerable difference on the sidelines.
Mowry took over the Sheridan program in the spring, succeeding former head coach Don Julian after he decided to step down. Mowry was on staff for over a decade under Julian, but he’s needed time to adjust to being a head coach. And now he’s got the Broncs back to where they’ve finished the last four years.
“I hadn’t called offense in the years’ past so it’s an adjustment for me and for our kids too,” Mowry said. “We kind of had to mesh together and do better at knowing where to put the ball and whose hands it needed to be in.”
Natrona County faces the prospect of redemption. The Mustangs have finished runners-up the past two seasons to Sheridan. But they aren’t focused on that or considering it that way.
“There may be a little bit of chip on their shoulder,” Harshman said. “As much as anything they’re living in the now. They’re not living in the past.
“... You can’t focus on the end result, you have to focus on the million little process things to get there.”