Four questions to answer
Will Gillette and Natrona play again in Laramie in mid-November? Although anything can happen in 4A, right now the Mustangs and Camels are the favorites to meet for the 4A title at The War. Of the 11 returning all-state players, six belong to either the Camels or Mustangs (three apiece). Given that talent disparity, the odds are on the Camels and Mustangs to play again for the 4A title.
Can anyone crack the vice grip the top four schools have on 4A? In short, probably not this season. Cheyenne East, Sheridan, Gillette and Natrona have made up the Class 4A semifinal field each of the past three seasons. And of the 11 aforementioned returning all-staters, 10 belong to these four schools — Kelly Walsh lineman Alex Pietrzak is the only returning all-stater not from one of these four schools.
Humor us… Which team has the best chance at breaking that vice grip? Probably Kelly Walsh. The Trojans have shown steady improvement in Jon Vance’s two years — from 2-7 in 2011 to 4-6 in 2012 — and if that improvement continues, KW could be a darkhorse contender for a semifinal appearance, or more.
Is this the year South breaks its streak? Hopefully. Winless in their first 18 varsity contests, the Bison were much more competitive in 2012 than they were in 2011 and nearly upset Evanston in the sixth game of the season last year. Although the Bison still face a talent and tradition disparity from the rest of the schools in 4A, they have several advantages in 2013 — another year together, a kinder schedule and, maybe most importantly, a desire to put the losing streak behind them.
Four players to watch
Taven Bryan, Natrona. The first Wyoming recruit in recent memory to secure an offer from an SEC school (Florida), Bryan, a lineman, could play either side of the ball in college. That versatility makes him a tremendous weapon for the Mustangs in his senior year. The only question is if the expectations are distractors or motivators for this multitalented athlete.
Austin Fort, Gillette. A University of Wyoming commit, Fort moved to Gillette last year and almost automatically became one of the best quarterbacks in the state. His big arm, his size and his mobility made him the perfect fit for the Camels’ diverse offensive attack. He led 4A in completions (160) and passing yards (2,137) last year, and if he can rein in his interception total from a year ago (he threw 14 picks), he could lead Gillette back to Laramie for the second year in a row.
Tevis Bartlett, Cheyenne East. The junior will be THE key to East’s offense in 2013. He was the only 11-man player in the state last year to run for more than 1,000 yards (1,093) and throw for more than 1,000 yards (1,393). Even though his yardage totals may not hold up as teams key on him more, he will likely have to shoulder a bigger burden in terms of leadership than he did a year ago.
Billy Williams, Gillette. Williams makes this list for one simple reason: He’s a tackling machine. The linebacker is Class 4A’s top returning tackler; he led 4A in solo tackles (45) a year ago and also added four turnovers (two fumble recoveries, two interceptions) and four tackles for loss. He was one of only five players in 4A last year to rack up more than 16 defensive points per game, and the other four have graduated. …
Four key games
Gillette at Natrona, Sept. 20. Last year’s regular-season showdown featured two undefeated teams; the two teams met three weeks later to play for the state title. This year’s meeting is much earlier in the calendar (Week 3 instead of Week 8), but the game will likely have just as big an affect on the seeding for the playoffs.
All of Week 5. Rivalry Week is back, as the Oil Bowl (Kelly Walsh-Natrona), Energy Bowl (Sheridan-Gillette) and Capital Bowl (East-Central) are all slated for the week of Oct. 4. Just as key, though, are the other two 4A games that week (Laramie at South and Evanston at Rock Springs), both of which are games that could decide playoff qualification.
Kelly Walsh at Sheridan, Sept. 6. Is Kelly Walsh’s program truly growing into one of 4A’s best? We’ll find out in a hurry in 2013, as the Trojans face Gillette and Sheridan the first two weeks of the season. Arguably the bigger game is the road opener against the Broncs, the team that has knocked KW out of the playoffs three of the past four years.
Gillette at Cheyenne East, Oct. 25. Both the Camels and the Thunderbirds have reached the 4A semifinals each of the past three seasons. To secure hosting duties and high seeds in the playoffs, a victory in this Week 8 game could be crucial. After all, the road to Laramie is a lot easier if the only bus trip is the one TO Laramie.
Predicted order of finish
Natrona; Gillette; Cheyenne East; Sheridan; Kelly Walsh; Cheyenne Central; Rock Springs; Evanston; Cheyenne South; Laramie.
Way-too-early title-game score prediction
This is Natrona’s year. Again. But Gillette stands in the way. Again. Natrona 28, Gillette 14.
Only two schools in Wyoming have had a player in the Shrine Bowl in each of its 40 years. They’re both current Class 4A schools. Which schools are they?
Classification’s 2013 theme song
Is the 4A title really Natrona’s to lose? Will 2013 be the fourth year in a row we see the “Big Four” in the semis? Who has the best chance of throwing a kink in that tradition? Comment below and let me know what big schools you’re watching this year.