The atmosphere surrounding William T. McIntosh Stadium in Jackson last Saturday for all the state championship matches was noteworthy. But it was the Class 4A boys match that truly felt like a marquee match. Fans filled the grandstands, lined the track and leaned against the fences for the closest view possible of their hometown Jackson Broncs.
“This is the best soccer scene that I’ve seen since I’ve lived here in 20 years,” Jackson head coach Matt Hoelscher noted.
Obviously, the vast majority of that can be contributed to the Broncs playing in their hometown in front of fans who watched them advance through the quarterfinals before dramatically surviving their semifinal match. That frantic energy was the most vocal driving force in the 2019 Wyoming State High School Class 4A Boys Soccer Championship. Along with the Jackson faithful was the neutral fan’s preference to witness an upset.
Jackson’s win meant that for the second straight season it was the underdog that hoisted gold. The year before Natrona County entered as the West’s No. 4 seed and scored three upset wins to win the program’s first state championship since 1996. While a back-to-back occurrence can hardly be considered a trend, it’s worth noting the possible shift in 4A boys’ soccer dynamics.
Last season’s championship win for Natrona County was the first time a West Conference team won the whole thing since Kelly Walsh did so in 2012. Those two — along with Jackson this year — are the only West Conference teams to have won the state championship since the split into two separate classifications in 2008.
So what is at play behind the rise of the unlikely hero?
Part of it could be that the most recent two state tournaments were held in Jackson, a far longer journey for East Conference teams than their West competitors (even though the trip for most West teams isn’t exactly easy either). That means teams have to endure long, uncomfortable bus rides a day, usually hours, before taking the field on the first day. West Conference teams went a combined 4-4 during the two years the tournament was in Jackson, compared to 15-29 since the current seeding format was adopted. Even in the year before that, when teams were effectively seeded East versus West in the first round, the East won three of the four matches.
Having the tournament the furthest West it has ever been could be a factor, but since it’s also been in Sheridan, Rock Springs and Laramie before, the common thread appears to be more than just location.
So what else could be at play here? In short, consistency.
In the decade since the current quarterfinal format has been in place, the East has swept the first round twice (the best the West ever did was 3-1 in 2009). Cheyenne Central, Laramie and Sheridan advanced in both of those seasons. That’s compared to the past two seasons, where no team from the East advanced in both years.
Laramie has won five state championships since 2008 and yet the Plainsmen were upset at regionals this year and failed to qualify for the state tournament. Central, which has seven total championships, has won just two since 2009. Then there’s Cheyenne East and its eight championships, only one of which has come under the current tournament format.
Of course, when the state tournament moves to Cheyenne for its two-year cycle next season, the East will regain a geographic advantage. Officials have yet to announce which sites in Cheyenne will be used, although the high schools put in the bid and would prefer every game be played at their sites. That means Central and East could be playing on their home field for a state championship, just like Jackson did this season. That makes any team from the West Conference even more of an underdog going forward.
Whether it’s improved quality, lightning in a bottle, better tactics or something else entirely, the West’s current run validates the conference’s quality. Whether it’s the start of a prolonged tilt in conference superiority, however, remains to be seen.