Our five-part season preview wraps up today with Class 4A.
Four questions to answer
What can Natrona do with six returning first-team all-state selections? Whatever it wants. Consider this: Last season, there were only three returning first-team all-state selections in ALL of Class 4A. This year, Natrona alone has six, including Dan Reese, a Casper Star-Tribune Super 25 first-team selection last fall, and Ryan Anaya, who’s already committed to play at Wyoming. Linemen Colter Bentley and Adam Britton, running back/punter Josh Flanigan and wideout/defensive back/quarterback Brecken Biggs give the Mustangs a good mix of returning talent and make NC the favorite to win it all in 4A this year.
Was Cheyenne East’s run to the title game last year a fluke? No. East’s 24-19 upset of Natrona in last year’s 4A semifinals was an upset. But it was not a fluke. (And, yes, there is a difference.) The Thunderbirds had one of the most gifted teams in 4A last year, and with three returning first-team all-state picks — Tod Wenger, Austen Motily and Joe Ash — East has to be in the title discussion again this year.
Can Sheridan make it four trips in a row to Laramie? The short answer is a qualified yes. This year, maybe more than the past three, the Broncs have some rebuilding to do. The bulk of key players on last year’s championship team were seniors. Although it looks like the line will come together pretty well, the players outside the trenches have some work to do to prove themselves.
Who is this year’s surprise team? Rock Springs. I saw the Tigers at what was probably their lowest point last season — the loss to Kelly Walsh in Casper — and I still came away impressed. Running back Tanner McQuillan and receiver Zach Legerski are going to make a solid 1-2 offensive combination for what I think could be an explosive team this fall.
Four players to watch
Ryan Anaya, Natrona. He’s already committed to play at Wyoming. That alone should speak volumes. His numbers last year did not blow anyone away, but his presence and his ability will force teams to account for him. That should free up some opportunities for his teammates, too.
Collin Eisenman, Sheridan. The reigning Class 4A defensive player of the year, Eisenman was always around the ball last season. His numbers might actually dip this year as teams do a better job of accounting for him, but he will also be a stronger, better player this fall and will play a huge role as one of the centerpieces of the Broncs’ defense.
Tanner McQuillan, Rock Springs. Last year was the “Year of the Running Back” in 4A, and McQuillan was lost a bit in the shuffle. However, he will make sure he’s not ignored this year. He is the top returning rusher in the classification this year — he ran for 1,132 yards last year, trailing the “Big Four” of Roberts, Woods, Eddington and Bazemore — and could improve on those numbers this year.
Dani Fischer, Gillette. Fischer, the Camels’ only returning first-team all-state choice, is an explosive triple threat as a receiver, defensive back and returner. He racked up an unusually high 23.4 yards per catch last fall, led the team with five interceptions and was the Camels’ go-to kick and punt returner. His explosiveness will help keep Gillette in every game — and may help the Camels win a few, too.
Four key games
Gillette at Evanston, Aug. 24: Finally, the Red Devils get to play the Camels in Uinta County. The past two years, Evanston has had to trek to Gillette for its season openers; this year, the Camels have to make the trip. And, of course, Evanston wants revenge for last year, when Gillette pulled out a 40-36 victory late in the fourth quarter.
Natrona at Sheridan, Aug. 31: The longtime rivals are playing for the 100th time in a series that dates back to 1921. Add on the fact that the winner will likely be considered the early favorite for the 4A state title this year, and you can see why this one will be a big one.
Cheyenne East at Cheyenne Central, Sept. 14: The East-Central showdown is always for bragging rights and occasionally for more. It will be interesting to see if this one is for bragging rights, or for more.
Gillette at Natrona, Oct. 19: The last four regular-season meetings have finished 15-13, 21-20, 47-32 and 41-34. If nothing else, the Camels and Mustangs put on a good show when they get together; that alone should be worth the price of admission.
Predicted order of finish
Natrona, Sheridan, Gillette, Cheyenne East, Evanston, Rock Springs, Cheyenne Central, Laramie, Kelly Walsh, Cheyenne South.
Completely outlandish, way-too-early title game score prediction
Natrona 31, Sheridan 21
Numerous extensive series exist between Class 4A schools. Laramie and Central have played each other 127 times; Natrona and Sheridan will play for the 100th time this year, while Natrona and Central will play for the 99th. But — EXCLUDING Cheyenne South from the discussion — what is the least-played series between two current Class 4A schools? And how many times have they played? And what is the series record entering 2012? Post your guesses below — but feel free to add anything else you’re looking forward to seeing in the 2012 4A season.