A breakdown of each one of this weekend’s five championship games:
Class 2A, noon Friday
Glenrock Herders (2E, 8-2) vs. Wheatland Bulldogs (1E, 9-1)
Series record: Wheatland leads 15-13.
Last meeting: Wheatland beat Glenrock 22-8 on Sept. 25 in Glenrock.
Last playoff meeting: First playoff meeting.
State championships: Glenrock eight, most recent in 2008. … Wheatland one, in 1984.
Previous title game record: Glenrock, 6-4. … Wheatland, 1-2.
The path to Laramie: Glenrock shut out Mountain View 37-0 in the first round and beat Lovell 13-10 in overtime in the semifinals. … Wheatland destroyed Lyman 70-6 in the quarterfinals and shut out Greybull 40-0 in the semifinals.
The case for Glenrock: The Herders have a system that works. They stick to it, and it produces results. For a team that didn’t even make the playoffs a year ago, an appearance in the title game isn’t all that surprising. Glenrock’s football tradition breeds this kind of success. The running game is on point — both Garrett Schwindt and Alec Arnold have topped 1,000 yards rushing this fall. The passing game is opportunistic. And, most importantly, the defense rarely breaks: The Herders shut out five of their opponents this fall.
The case for Wheatland: All season long, Wheatland has been the Class 2A favorite. The Bulldogs started the season ranked first in the class and, aside from a 28-14 loss to Big Horn in Week 8, have lived up to that billing. They’ve scored 451 points and only given up 48. They’re well-rounded, talented, strong up front and experienced. A deep senior class, led by Josh Calvert, Nathan Willis, Daniel Chesser, Justis Borton, Preston Gunther, Kyle Pollock and a host of others, wants to end their careers with a state title, something that’s evaded Wheatland since 1984. And the Bulldogs have six shutouts. So there.
The pick: Class 2A’s top two offenses and top two defenses will meet for the title. Only seems right. Both teams are senior-laden, talented, hungry. But from the end of last season to today, this has been Wheatland’s title to lose. Glenrock has had a nice season. It’s just a shame they’re running into a juggernaut. And as long as Wheatland doesn’t believe that, it’ll be fine. Wheatland 20, Glenrock 12.
Class 3A, 3 p.m. Friday
Green River Wolves (3W, 6-4) vs. Star Valley Braves (2W, 9-1)
Series record: Star Valley leads 36-31-5.
Last meeting: Star Valley beat Green River 16-15 on Oct. 9 in Green River.
Last playoff meeting: First playoff meeting.
State championships: Green River five, most recent in 2004. … Star Valley eight, most recent in 1996.
Previous title game record: Green River, 4-2. … Star Valley, 7-10.
The path to Laramie: Green River topped Buffalo 24-20 in the quarterfinals and upset Jackson 24-15 in the semis. … Star Valley beat Douglas 35-13 in the first round and Torrington 42-27 in the semifinals.
The case for Green River: Remember when Green River was 2-4? The Wolves’ turnaround wasn’t really a turnaround — they just started winning the close games they had lost early in the year. Green River’s two playoff victories, a 24-20 squeaker over Buffalo and a surprisingly dominant 24-15 victory over Jackson, have hardened their playoff mettle. Quarterback Tyler Vendetti, who leads the Wolves in rushing yards (932) and passing yards (890), may be the most versatile offensive player in 3A. And although the Wolves don’t have any eye-popping statistical edges, they have confidence, both in their ability to win (four in a row at the most critical time in the season) and in their specific ability to beat the Braves — the last team to beat Green River before it turned around.
The case for Star Valley: In a word? Uniformity. Prepping for Star Valley is like prepping for a flood. Stopping one drop of water looks easy, but stopping all of those drops proves nearly impossible. The Braves have that approach on both offense and defense — if you focus on one, another one will slip by and beat you. Every player has to be accounted for, because every player is capable of making a play. Quarterback Reese Hiibel, running back Kellen Hansen, defensive centerpieces Bailey Johnson, Kyler Battleson, McCabe Smith, Conner Smith, Sean Pittman and Alex Howell… all potential game-breakers. And even if you shut them down, the Braves’ less-heralded players are just as capable. That makes planning for, and playing against, the Braves a logistical nightmare.
The pick: Star Valley won’t underestimate Green River. After all, the Braves needed a field goal on the last play of the game to beat Green River in their first meeting this year. The Wolves are capable. But, as improved as the Wolves are, the Braves still have my edge, although not by much. And it might come down to the kicking game. Again. Star Valley 24, Green River 21.
Class 1A six-man, 10 a.m. Saturday
Meeteetse Longhorns (1W, 10-0) vs. Kaycee Buckaroos (1E, 9-1)
Series record: Meeteetse leads 4-3
Last meeting: Meeteetse beat Kaycee 45-20 in a six-man quarterfinal game on Oct. 31, 2014, in Kaycee.
Last playoff meeting: Same.
State championships: Meeteetse two, most recent in 2013. … Kaycee is going for its first.
Previous title game record: Meeteetse, 2-1. … Kaycee, 0-1.
The path to Laramie: Meeteetse thumped Guernsey-Sunrise 70-26 to start the playoffs and offed Hulett 68-36 in the semifinals. … Kaycee ran over Dubois 76-18 in the quarters and beat Snake River 51-14 in the semifinals.
The case for Meeteetse: Is there anything else Meeteetse could do to prove its case? They’re undefeated. They’ve won every game by at least 21 points, most by a lot more than that. They’ve scored almost 72 points per game, on pace not only to beat but to destroy the state record for most points scored per game. And they’ve done so via the spreading the love, as seven players have scored at least five touchdowns apiece this season. While multipurpose threat Carter Johnson and quarterback Dalton Abarr make the offense click, everyone has had a hand in the Longhorns’ success. That diversity is dangerous.
The case for Kaycee: Since a 6-0 hiccup loss to Guernsey in Week 2, the Buckaroos have been unstoppable, winning by at least 37 points every time out. Kaycee’s defense has given up more than 18 points to just two opponents all year, a remarkable tally for six-man where offense is king. What set Kaycee apart this year, though, is its diversity. When the season started, a lot of pressure was on senior Taylor Rouse’s shoulders to carry this team to Laramie. However, Kaycee has found success in diversification, which has allowed both Rouse and his teammates — guys like fellow senior Hayden Fauber, sophomore Danny Ramirez and others — to find their place and help carry the load.
The pick: We figured back in August that Meeteetse and Kaycee would rise to the top of six-man this year. What we didn’t foresee was just how dominant Meeteetse’s run would be, or how Kaycee’s one slip-up would completely refocus the Buckaroos’ season. It’d be easy to pick Meeteetse, and I will. However, Kaycee will give Meeteetse its toughest test of the season. The Buckaroos are capable of playing with, and beating, the Longhorns. Maybe THIS is the year we finally get that close, nerve-wracking six-man title game we hope for every year but have yet to see come to fruition. Meeteetse 60, Kaycee 52.
Class 1A 11-man, 1 p.m. Saturday
Tongue River Eagles (3E, 8-2) vs. Upton-Sundance Patriots (2E, 9-1)
Series record: Upton-Sundance leads 2-0; Tongue River leads series with Sundance 27-24 and Upton 19-17.
Last meeting: Upton-Sundance beat Tongue River 35-6 on Sept. 18 in Dayton.
Last playoff meeting: First playoff meeting.
State championships: Tongue River five, most recent in 1974. … Upton-Sundance is going for its first, although Upton and Sundance have combined for three, most recent for both schools in 2005.
Previous title game record: Tongue River, 1-4. … Upton-Sundance, 0-0, but Upton 2-7 and Sundance 1-2.
The path to Laramie: Tongue River beat Cokeville on the road 28-21 in the first round and Lingle on the road 28-9 in the semifinals. … Upton-Sundance beat Rocky Mountain 39-12 in the quarterfinals and Southeast 26-14 in the semis.
The case for Tongue River: There’s two ways to look at the Eagles: They’re either a team that’s learned how to win or a team that’s had an incredible lucky streak. If you subscribe to the former, you look at guys like Dillon Lyons, a 1,000-yard rusher, and Brennan Kutterer, a one-man wrecking crew on defense, and coach John Scott, and you see that the Eagles’ success is no accident. However, even the most ardent Tongue River supporter can’t deny how fortunate the Eagles were in the second half of the season, as the squad won consecutive games by 5, 9, 3 and 7 points before beating Lingle by 19 in the semis. That’s either luck, or it’s the cementing of a won’t-lose mentality. If it’s the latter, watch out.
The case for Upton-Sundance: The Patriots’ program has been built slowly, piece by piece, the past four years. Playoff berths in 2012 and 2013, a playoff win in 2014, a title game appearance in 2015. This program has all the earmarks of one built for longevity, not just one fleeting title run. Running back Dawson Butts is the offensive focus, but he has a ton of support; Rourke McPeters anchors the defense, but he, too, is surrounded by capable and talented teammates. The Patriots have enough playmakers in enough places, enough postseason experience, enough confidence, enough success and enough ability to lift a trophy on Saturday.
The pick: You look at the first meeting these two teams had, and you’d think this pick is easy. It’s not. Tongue River is not the same team that lost to the Patriots in September. The Eagles have been playing for their lives the past five weeks. And look at what they’ve done: Beat Southeast 12-7, beat Lingle 48-39, beat Pine Bluffs 28-25, beat Cokeville 28-21, beat Lingle 28-9. Four of those five victories came on the road. Confidence breeds confidence; success breeds success. And while it’s easy to focus on the Eagles’ recent run, just take a look at the Patriots’ entire 2015 season. Destiny is a temptress, and I still like the Patriots. In a thriller. Enough is enough. Upton-Sundance 21, Tongue River 18.
Class 4A, 4 p.m. Saturday
Sheridan Broncs (2, 10-1) vs. Gillette Camels (1, 11-0)
Series record: Sheridan leads 41-30-1.
Last meeting: Gillette beat Sheridan 20-14 on Oct. 2 in Gillette.
Last playoff meeting: Gillette beat Sheridan 35-16 in a 4A semifinal game on Nov. 3, 2012, in Gillette.
State championships: Sheridan 23, most recent in 2011. … Gillette four, most recent in 2008.
Previous title game record: Sheridan, 13-6. … Gillette, 4-8.
The path to Laramie: Sheridan shut out Evanston 48-0 in the quarterfinals and overcame Natrona 35-10 in the semifinals. … Gillette smoked Laramie 73-33 in the first round and destroyed Cheyenne East 61-6 in the semifinals.
The case for Sheridan: The Broncs don’t have the eye-popping statistics that most 10-1 teams have. That’s just the way they like it. Sheridan can beat teams in about 100 different ways. Blake Godwin can beat teams through the air thanks to a diverse receiving corps, or Evan Coon can beat teams by running right past them. The defense is hard to prepare for because they can stop teams in so many ways, both with varying schemes and varying personnel. In short: The things that make Sheridan tough every year make the Broncs tough again this year. You’d think the whole program is built this way or something.
The case for Gillette: First things first: Gillette has beaten Sheridan five times in a row. The Camels have owned the recent series, and maybe the mental edge, against the Broncs. Second things second: The Camels may have more individual talent than any team in the state. QB Dalton Holst has already set Wyoming’s single-season passing record; Madden Pikula might be more difficult to stop than any other receiver in the state; Roo Aten has been a multipurpose dynamo; Zach Taylor has been a rock at linebacker; the guys up front have been the catalyst for it all. Most importantly, those individual players have been part of a team concept that’s bigger than any single one of them.
The pick: This is the game we’ve seen coming all season. Even though these two teams have the best offenses, by far, in Class 4A, this game will be decided by defense. The regular-season matchup showed us that. I envision some sort of defensive play — a pick-six, a safety, a fumble recovery deep in enemy territory — swinging this game one direction or another. Keep in mind, the Camels have been stymied in Laramie; they’re the only “big four” team to not win it all in the War. If Gillette can get that key defensive play, chances are good they’ll hoist that trophy. It’s time for the rise of the CCSC — the Campbell County State Champions. Gillette 27, Sheridan 25.
Tad and Homer picked their title-game winners, as well. Tad had the easier time, as he picks the series leader, but Homer struggled because the games are at neutral sites and none of the five series included any neutral-site games. So he just picked the higher seed, the “home” team for the championship game, and called it good.
Tad: Sheridan over Gillette; Meeteetse over Kaycee.
Homer: Gillette over Sheridan; Kaycee over Meeteetse.
Both: Star Valley over Green River; Wheatland over Glenrock; Upton-Sundance over Tongue River.
(Series records already in preview; first neutral-site game for all series.)
Last week’s records: Patrick, 7-3 (70 percent); Tad, 9-1 (90 percent); Homer, 7-3 (70 percent).
Season records: Patrick, 229-62 (79 percent); Tad, 183-108 (63 percent); Homer, 167-124 (57 percent).
Who are your five picks for state champions? Leave a comment and let me know who you think has the edge in Laramie!