For almost a decade, the calling card of Class 4A football was its predictability.
The moniker afforded to the “Big Four” programs of Natrona, Cheyenne East, Sheridan and Campbell County/Thunder Basin is officially dead.
The chance for a team outside that group to win a 4A championship for the first time since 2004 is more than just blind optimism.
Cheyenne Central proved last year it can hang with anyone. Rock Springs has been slowly building a scary program. Kelly Walsh was a semifinalist last year.
If 2020 was the beginning of the end of the Big Four, 2021 may represent the start of a new paradigm. The Big Seven? Eight? Nine? TEN?
One 4A coach put it succinctly: “There are no bye weeks in 4A anymore.” Note the last word.
And thank goodness for that.
Four questions to answer
Let’s start simple: Who’s the 4A favorite? Simple?!?! This is by far one of the hardest questions to answer, statewide in any classification, heading into the 2021 season. With Class 4A’s turnover this year, the classification is as unpredictable as ever. This year’s preseason survey of coaches turned in a variety of different answers as to who 4A’s favorite is; it will suffice to say that there’s no consensus.
Why is this so difficult? Most of last year’s teams were heavy on seniors. Only six (out of 39) first-team all-state choices are back this year in the entire classification, and only 15 (of 76) first-team all-conference players return. This season more than any will likely be defined by the offseason — which teams and players put in the most work to improve between last year and this year. And that’s always a crapshoot.
So who’d the coaches say? Well, Rock Springs, Thunder Basin, Cheyenne East, Cheyenne Central, Natrona, Sheridan… each one of those teams got at least some indication of being a true threat for a title. Of the four teams outside that discussion (Kelly Walsh, Cheyenne South, Campbell County and Laramie), keep in mind that KW was a semifinalist last year, Campbell County returns more starters than any other 4A program (eight on each side of the ball) and Laramie is the wild card with a new coach.
Is this year a harbinger of things to come this decade? It’s likely. East, Natrona and Sheridan are the only programs to win 4A titles since 2009. However, the 2020s are likely to be defined by a bit more parity than the 2010s were, meaning the chances of a titleist coming from someone other than these three programs is better than it’s been in a long, long time.
Preseason class MVP
Isaac Schoenfeld, Rock Springs. In a word: versatility. The only returning player in 4A who was on the Casper Star-Tribune Super 25 first team a year ago, Schoenfeld, a University of Wyoming commit, has the size and skill to frustrate opponents. He does a bit of everything on defense — 26 tackles, three sacks, three fumble recoveries, two pass deflections last year — and was the Tigers’ top receiver last year with 37 catches, 610 yards and seven touchdowns. Oh, and he ran the ball a bit, too.
Presesason class breakout player
Carter McComb, Sheridan. McComb has been a two-time all-state choice at return specialist last year, and with good reason — last year, he only had 16 returns, but two went for touchdowns. Still, he has yet to find a consistent spot in Sheridan’s offense. That could change this year as the Broncs graduated a lot of receivers and need explosive players, like McComb, to give them a downfield threat.
Other players to watch
Cam Burkett, Kelly Walsh. KW’s lone all-state player last year will be the focus of every opponent’s defensive game plan. He carried for 1,090 yards and 17 TDs last year, and with the Trojans losing their next four top rushers to graduation, Burkett may have to do even more to keep KW in contention.
Ryan Baker, Thunder Basin. A successful junior year has turned up expectations on the ‘Bolts’ senior quarterback. He completed 159 of 271 passes for 2,084 yards and 19 touchdowns last year. In a season where several teams are changing quarterbacks, Baker’s return gives Thunder Basin some much-needed offensive stability.
Cadon Shaklee, Rock Springs. One of the top defensive players in the classification, no other player in 4A coming back this year can match Shaklee’s 101 tackles from a year ago. He also notched four sacks. He doesn’t have a big role on offense but still managed a pair of touchdown catches last year; that could grow as he grows.
Kaeden Wilcox, Natrona. Wilcox was Natrona’s statistical leader on defense last year, with an even 100 tackles, 40 solo tackles, six interceptions and seven pass break-ups. As the Mustangs rebuild their defense this year, Wilcox’s presence will give Natrona the necessary steadiness and consistency.
Four key games
Thunder Basin at Cheyenne East, Aug 27. The season starts with a bang as the ‘Bolts and Thunderbirds meet in a rematch of last year’s championship game. This game was the only game East lost all last year, so don’t read too much into how this game turns out either way — but you can bet both teams really want to win this one.
Cheyenne Central at Kelly Walsh, Sept. 3. Think the Indians won’t be hyped for this one? This is Central’s chance for revenge on the team that surprised it in the first round of last year’s playoffs. But Kelly will be ready, too, prepared to show last year’s upset was no fluke.
Natrona at Sheridan, Oct. 1. One of the most epic games of the 2020 season was the four-overtime breathtaker between the Mustangs and Broncs. But that’s no surprise — games between these two programs rarely disappoint. With both teams thinking about deep playoff runs this year, this one will be, as usual, critical to the 4A chase.
Rock Springs at Cheyenne East, Oct. 22. If the Tigers keep improving as they have been the past couple years, this game against defending champ East in the final week of the regular season could be the most critical game not only for the two teams involved but for all of 4A.
Predicted order of finish/preseason rankings
Rock Springs, Cheyenne East, Natrona, Sheridan, Thunder Basin, Cheyenne Central, Campbell County, Kelly Walsh, Laramie, Cheyenne South.
Way-too-early title game score prediction
Rock Springs 21, Cheyenne East 20. Realistically, though, any team that makes the playoffs will have a good shot at winning it all. Be ready for weirdness, upsets and a surprise champion — because, let’s be honest, anyone who wins it this year will be a surprise champion.
Which team do you think has the best chance to stake a claim to a title in a year full of transition? Leave a comment, or drop a line on Twitter or Facebook.