The Class 3A playoffs went according to plan this season. One year after Cody upset defending state champion Star Valley in the semifinals and previously unbeaten Torrington in the state championship game, the Braves and Trailblazers face off Friday in the Wyoming State High School Football Championships at War Memorial Stadium.
Torrington (10-0) has been atop the 3A rankings all season while Star Valley (9-2) has won eight in a row after a 1-2 start. In other words, both teams were expected to be here, although the ‘Blazers needed to survive a controversial finish in its 22-21 victory over Jackson in the semifinals.
“Class 3A is such an even league that you never know,” Torrington head coach Mark Lenhardt said. “I can tell you that Evanston was the best four-seed we’ve ever seen. And obviously Jackson was very, very good. Every week was a battle and luckily we’ve been able to get here.”
The ‘Blazers got here behind a solid group of seniors who learned first-hand last year what it takes to get to Laramie.
“A number of these kids will be making their second trip to Laramie,” Lenhardt said, “so they kind of know what it’s all about.”
Then again, so do the Braves.
Star Valley won back-to-back state titles before last year’s semifinal loss and the Braves are 40-5 the past four seasons. This year, a challenging non-conference schedule that featured two of Idaho’s top teams – Hillsdale and Sugar-Salem – combined with injuries to some of its top players had Star Valley flying under the radar early in the season.
“Obviously, I’m very pleased with this team’s resiliency,” Star Valley head coach McKay Young said. “We called them The Gritty Bunch just because they’re pretty gritty the way they responded to adversity throughout the season. It’s been an interesting road.
“Hillcrest and Sugar-Salem were two extremely good teams that we sent our young team over to play. The way that we got exposed in those games has definitely paid dividends. We’ve come a long ways and I think those games made us better.”
At one point this season the Braves were missing eight starters because of injuries. But junior quarterback Dean Shaw and senior running back Wyatt Moore – one half of the Braves’ 4x100-meter relay team – have returned after suffering broken collar bones on back-to-back plays in the loss to Sugar-Salem.
In their absence, sophomore quarterback Brant Nelson (600-plus passing yards and nine touchdowns) and junior running back RJ Cazier (1,000-plus rushing yards and 18 TDs) filled in admirably. Now, with Shaw and Moore back in the mix, the Braves are even more dangerous.
“We put in a lot of work in the offseason and everybody was ready to fill in when the time came,” Star Valley linebacker Will Johnson said. “Brant had never played any varsity ball and he did a great job of filling in. Our goal was always to get to Laramie, even after those early games.”
And now the Braves are back, and getting better by the week.
“Star Valley has always been great between the tackles,” Lenhardt said. “Their power running game has always been good, that’s what they’re known for. But now they’ve got that speed and they’re working that fly sweep in and they’re getting to the perimeter, so now we have to try and stop both.
“And everybody knows that when you stretch a defense horizontally and vertically it gets very, very difficult.”
Of course, Star Valley also has to find a way to slow down the Torrington offense. The ‘Blazers average almost 300 rushing yards per game and are atop the classification in passing yards per game.
Leading the way for the Torrington offense is senior running back Bryan Lemmon, who has rushed for more than 1,700 yards and 27 TDs and has more than 500 receiving yards and eight scores.
“Everybody knows Lemmon is going to be featured,” Young said, “but the multitude of ways Coach Lenhardt is able to get him the ball and give the defense a hard time figuring it out is pretty impressive.
“Our defense has been playing well, but our hands are full with what Coach Lenhardt and company do with their guys.”
According to Lemmon, his offensive success is a result of what happens up front.
“A running back can’t do anything without his O-line,” he said. “They do a lot for me and I appreciate it.”
That offensive line will have its hands full against Star Valley. But Lenhardt believes his team will be ready for the challenge.
“Our players can line up in a lot of different formations and groups on both sides of the ball,” he said. “They can handle a huge workload, which is really advantageous to us.
“I don’t know if this is the most talented team top to bottom, but in terms of being assignment sharp and knowing their job and what to do, and really just an expectation of winning, this is the best crew I’ve had.”
Torrington will find out Friday if that’s enough to get the program its first state title since 1990. Obviously, the Braves want to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“It’s been a great week,” Star Valley’s Tanner Thompson said. “We’re not here just to get to Laramie, we want to win in Laramie.”