The theme this weekend in Laramie is simple: retribution.
Four of this year’s five title games involve a one-loss team playing an undefeated team — and in every one of those games, the undefeated team gave the one-loss team its only loss of the season.
Gillette’s only loss? Natrona.
Star Valley’s only loss? Powell.
Lovell’s only loss? Lyman
Snake River’s only loss? Dubois.
The only classification in which that isn’t happening is 1A 11-man, where Southeast technically comes in with a 6-3 record after losing to Newcastle and Lusk in the regular season and notching a forfeit loss to Pine Bluffs. Even so, Lusk comes in unbeaten with Southeast one of its victims on the way.
So logic will tell us that the team that won in the regular season should also win the championship. If that happens, each classification would have an undefeated state champion.
And that is something the state has never seen with the five-classification setup.
In fact, we have the chance to see something we haven’t seen since 1977 — every state champ finishing unbeaten. The last time that happened, Cheyenne Central (10-0 in Class AA), Glenrock (9-0 in Class A) and Big Piney (9-0 in Class B) all finished unbeaten on their way to titles in ’77. Since the WHSAA re-instituted playoff brackets for all classifications in 1975, the undefeated sweep has only happened in one other year — the first year, 1975, when Natrona, Douglas and Pinedale all finished 10-0 seasons with state titles.
Undefeated state championship seasons are fairly common — about 40 percent of state champions in Wyoming finish unbeaten. But it’s super-rare to see an undefeated sweep, and, again, it’s never happened with the five-class setup.
However, I think it’s worth noting that a five-class sweep is easier now than ever before. Class 4A schools and Class 1A six-man schools don’t play anyone outside their classification or outside the state, while expanded conferences in the 3A, 2A and 1A 11-man classifications mean fewer chances to lose in the nonconference season to a team in a different classification or in another state. All too often since 1990, a five-class unbeaten sweep was snuffed out in Week 1 by a tough regional nonconference foe, often by a team in a higher classification. Those games don’t happen much anymore; hence, it’s easier for the five-class undefeated sweep to happen.
Gillette, Star Valley, Lovell, Southeast and Snake River would love nothing more than to be the team that spoils the undefeated sweep and hoists the trophy by exacting some revenge for that early season loss. But do any of those five actually stand a chance of beating the team that beat them in the regular season — in four of five cases, the ONLY team that beat them?
My picks are below.
* Class 1A six-man championship, (1N) Dubois vs. (1S) Snake River, noon. Simply put, this game is Dubois’ to lose. Ever since Dubois put a stop to Snake River’s 22-game winning streak in Week 2 with a 43-36 victory, the Rams have been the top team in six-man. And it seems like in examining every common opponent result, Dubois has done just a little bit better against every team it has had in common with Snake River than the Rattlers have this season. Call it Dubois, as I think the Rams will win the first state football championship in school history, but call it uncomfortably close against a program filled with pride, poise and two state championships in tow: Dubois 54, Snake River 48.
* Class 3A championship, (2W) Star Valley vs. (1W) Powell, 3 p.m. Here’s the conversation that happened last week:
“Yes, this is Powell.”
“Powell, hey, it’s Green River. Just calling to give you your wake-up call. The score is now 13-3.”
“OK. Thanks, Green River.”
The undefeated defending state champion Panthers had been cruising until last week, when Green River put a bit of a surprise into Powell by hanging somewhat close before falling. To be honest, every championship team needs that, and for Powell, it may be better that they got that reality check in the semifinal round rather than in the first half of the title game. My bet is that Powell comes out focused for the title game. Of course, that’s not to say that the Braves won’t put up a good fight: Powell 20, Star Valley 16.
* Class 2A championship, (2W) Lovell vs. (1W) Lyman, 10 a.m. If the weather forecasts I’m reading are correct, by this time on Saturday, the precipitation will already be falling in Laramie. That will make this game — already set up to be a defensive showdown between two of the top three defenses in 2A — even more of a slugfest. Forget the fact that these are the top two yardage AND scoring offenses in 2A. Defense has the advantage in this one. Because of that, I think this game will come down to the final possession, and the only reason I’m picking Lyman is because the home blues will show up better against the sky (and the stuff that will probably be falling from it) than Lovell’s road whites. And that’s the last time I pick a game based on uniform color. … Lyman 12, Lovell 8.
* Class 1A 11-man championship, (2E) Southeast vs. (1E) Lusk, 1 p.m. Everything these two teams do is predicated by defense. The formula for both teams is simple: stop the run first, defend the pass as necessary, force punts and turnovers. Both teams execute these plans really well. Remember Lusk 7, Southeast 6, earlier this year? I think it’ll be close again. I think one of these two teams will score late in the fourth quarter. I think someone’s going to go for the win rather than the tie. And I think that decision will effectively boil down the state championship to one three-yard play. Lusk 14, Southeast 13.
* Class 4A championship, (2) Gillette vs. (1) Natrona, 4 p.m. Yeah, yeah, I know. Gillette has Sheridan, Natrona has Kelly Walsh. But when two programs sustain excellence for as long as these two programs, a rivalry is natural. And this may be Class 4A’s best rivalry. Since 1993, Natrona has had just one losing season; since 1997, Gillette has had losing seasons just twice. For five consecutive years from 1999-2003, the Mustangs and Camels played against each other in the playoffs, including the title games in ’99 and ’03; they’ve also played each other in the postseason in 2007 and 2010. Points may be easier to come by than they were in the regular-season finale — after all, these are the top two offenses in 4A — but I think the Mustangs’ stout defense keeps Gillette’s offense in check just enough for NC to polish off an undefeated season. Natrona 28, Gillette 20.
For the second straight week, I’m making predictions that would buck a historically significant trend. And for the second straight week, I would not be surprised to see any one of the teams I’ve picked against make sure that history does, indeed, repeat itself. The margins I’ve outlined for each game should make it clear that I think every single game will come down to the last possession.
Quite simply, this may be the best set of five title games since the event moved to Laramie four years ago. Every single game should be a good one.
Kind of makes me sad I don’t live in Wyoming anymore. Kind of…
Last week: 8-2 (80 percent). This season: 252-44 (85 percent).