Everyone in orange and black was happy to back on Cheney Alumni Field for Friday night’s season opener. But no one had to wait for the 2019 season’s arrival like Natrona County senior Isaac Palomo.
The talented defensive back and return specialist played on a partially torn ACL for three weeks last season, unbeknownst to anyone. That ACL completely tore in the Mustangs’ semifinal win over Cheyenne East. He watched the state championship game, as well as the next seven months of sports, from the sidelines.
Sporting a brace on his right knee Friday, he excitedly lined up for the opening kickoff. And nearly every moment after that in Natrona County’s 68-12 win over Cheyenne South came as a joy.
“I’m super appreciative of my physical therapist, Nancy Robertson,” Palomo said. “Best in Wyoming, best in America. I wouldn’t be here without her and I’m super grateful to be out here.”
Palomo nearly returned a kickoff for a touchdown late in the first quarter before being tripped up at the South 40-yard line. Assistant coach Rosie Brown told him it was a good return and to cut it up next time. That stuck in Palomo’s head, where the senior heard his coach’s voice late in the third quarter.
On the kickoff following the last of South’s scoring, Palomo felt the ball bounce off his foot and into his arm. He needed a moment to realize where the ball was before he took off. But once he moved forward there was no stopping him.
“I just started running, a huge hole opened for me, my blockers were amazing, and I just started going,” he said. “I remember Coach Brown telling me to cut it up, so on the second one in my head I heard his voice telling me to cut it up, so I did, and I was gone.”
Just as explosive as both of those returns was the Mustangs’ offense. Both of their first two drives ended with touchdowns in two plays. Quick-hit runs from senior Dante Wallace served as the punctuation mark to big-gain throws from junior quarterback Harrison Taubert to junior Myllin Allison. Wallace, a returning Super 25 selection, and Taubert, who played major minutes in the final few games of last season, served as leaders of a team with few returning starters.
The Mustangs replaced nearly all of their offensive starters with eight underclassmen. Regardless of age or experience, that offense hardly missed a beat while scoring eight touchdowns and accruing 369 yards. Wallace scored twice, Taubert threw for two TDs and ran one in, and junior back-up running back Braxton Bundy got on the board with a score. Then came the reserves, who kept things going with a scoring run from senior Ryan Sorenson, and a touchdown throw from Sorenson to junior Avery Cox.
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“We have a young team, a lot of juniors starting,” Palomo said. “I know, for them, it’s awesome. It’s awesome for everyone. You get those little butterflies, it pumps you up, and you just want to go down and cream somebody.”
Mustangs’ head coach Steve Harshman pointed out that youth, as well as the leadership of the senior class, in his postgame comments.
“Our junior and sophomore classes are big, our freshman class, too,” he said. “I think our seniors are doing a great job of bringing them along, leading them, just keep getting better. That’s the name of the game.”
Of course, any season-opening game isn’t without its hiccups. The Mustangs defense gave up 11 first downs and at times let Cheyenne South sophomore quarterback Braeden Hughes escape enough to tally 149 rushing yards. Hughes’ longest run came on an option keeper out of the Bison’s double-wing offense. He got to the corner and ran for 68 yards, before eventually getting run down by Palomo. The defense corrected itself at halftime, forcing its first three-and-out on the opening drive of the second half.
The defense was also responsible for two interceptions, including Wilsk Jackson’s perfect read of Hughes’ throw and cut-back vision to return the pick for a touchdown. Sophomore Kaeden Wilcox came away with the other.
“First game, you’re going to make mistakes,” Palomo said, “but it’s time to learn from them, build from those mistakes and go to the next level.”
That next level, or at least the next game, comes against Gillette. The Camels’ losing streak extended to 20 games with a 41-7 loss to Cheyenne East in their opener, although Gillette did outscore East 7-0 in the second half.
There’s too many new faces on this year’s Mustangs to resemble last year’s champions. But it’s still Natrona County, and the orange and black remain the team everyone looks to knock off.