The Wyoming state football championships — or, as I’m now calling it, War MemoriBowl VIII (but that’s a name I came up with while sleep deprived, and it’s awful) — start Friday in Laramie. I see four amazing games and one decent game in the works for the weekend. Now, which is which? Well, here’s the breakdowns for each five games, in chronological order, as well as my choice for who I think will win:
Class 1A six-man, noon Friday
Kaycee Buckaroos (1E, 10-0) vs. Farson Pronghorns (1W, 10-0)
Series record: Kaycee leads 3-0.
Last meeting: Kaycee beat Farson 65-6 on Sept. 7, 2012, in Farson.
Last playoff meeting: First playoff meeting.
State championships: Kaycee one, in 2015. … Farson zero.
Previous title game record: Kaycee, 1-1. … Farson, 0-0.
The path to Laramie: Kaycee beat up on Burlington 60-18 in the quarterfinals and Meeteetse 56-21 in the semifinals. … Farson ousted Hanna 85-26 in the first round and Guernsey-Sunrise 61-25 in the semis.
The case for the Buckaroos: They’re undefeated. They’ve got the longest winning streak in the state, regardless of classification, at 19 games. They’ve won every game this season by at least 35 points. They’ve got a diverse offense with a game-breaking running back in Danny Ramirez (more than 15 yards per rush, 26 TDs) and an efficient passing game — entering the semis, sophomore QB Hunter Rouse had completed 83 percent — EIGHTY THREE PERCENT! — of his passes and had a 29-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The bottom line is Kaycee knows how to win, knows how to win in Laramie, and knows how to win with the talent it has.
The case for the Pronghorns: As noted last week, Farson’s growth has been a slow burn, not a sudden explosion. The growth is predicated mostly on sophomores, as Lain Mitchelson has notched 1,552 rushing yards, tops in six-man; Clancy Gines has 10 rushing TDs, leads the team in receiving yards and is third on the team in tackles; and Cortland Barker is tied for the team lead with seven sacks. And seniors Thomas Rezzonico (leading tackler) and Ed Barlow have provided leadership and stability. The Pronghorns have the right mix of talent and potential to be champions for the first time in program history.
The pick: No matter who wins, we may be seeing the birth of a couple dynasties. Both squads are young (Kaycee has just two seniors, Farson four), and the young players are talented; they’re both loaded for success both Friday and beyond. Honestly, neither team has an advantage on paper. When that’s the case, go with the team that’s been here before and won’t be overwhelmed by the setting. And it wouldn’t be a stretch to look ahead to the rematch in Laramie in November 2017. But first… Kaycee 52, Farson 44.
Class 3A, 3 p.m. Friday
Star Valley Braves (2W, 10-1) vs. Powell Panthers (1W, 8-3)
Series record: Star Valley leads 25-13.
Last meeting: Powell beat Star Valley 22-14 on Sept. 30 in Powell.
Last playoff meeting: Powell beat Star Valley 13-10 in the 3A title game on Nov. 9, 2012, in Laramie.
State championships: Star Valley nine, most recent in 2015. … Powell eight, most recent in 2013.
Previous title game record: Star Valley, 8-10. … Powell, 6-2.
The path to Laramie: Star Valley outscored Riverton 35-27 in the first round and Douglas 61-42 in a semifinal shootout. … Powell held down Lander 58-6 in the quarterfinals and Green River 27-10 in the semifinals.
The case for the Braves: Star Valley has done this before. The defending 3A champions have been remarkably consistent this fall, and they’ve proven they can win games by grinding it out or by shooting it out. That versatility and that consistency is sparked by 3A’s top rushing offense — by far — with Kellen Hansen, Colin McGinley and Josh Dawson all capable game-breakers, and 3A’s top rushing defense, with McGinley, Dawson, Conner Smith, McCabe Smith and a host of others in there screwing things up for opponents. Last year’s MO was different, but first-year head coach McKay Young has shown the Braves can adapt to the talent they have. That sets up well for a repeat run.
The case for the Panthers: No team in the state may have improved more between Week 1 and Week 8 than Powell. The Panthers had a bad loss to Douglas (41-6), followed up by a now-head-scratching loss to Buffalo (7-6), in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively; only a 23-18 victory against Riverton kept Powell from losing four in a row. But the season turned around after beating — guess who? — Star Valley in Week 5. Since then, Powell hasn’t lost, winning six consecutive games, currently the longest winning streak in the state in 11-man. Oh, and the Panthers have the talent to make the individual play when it’s needed. T.J. Abraham is a beast on both sides of the ball; Mason Olsen plays off him and is a versatile threat under center; Brooks Asher, Nathan Magill and Max Gallagher consistently frustrate opposing offenses up front.
The pick: When you look at title games like this, you throw out the first half of the season. You realize that Powell defeating Star Valley was no fluke. You try to find where another team has an advantage, on either side of the ball. You stare until you feel cross-eyed. Then you realize it’s a toss-up. Star Valley 28, Powell 27, in overtime.
Class 2A, 10 a.m. Saturday
Big Horn Rams (2E, 9-1) vs. Greybull Buffaloes (2W, 9-1)
Series record: Big Horn leads 14-5.
Last meeting/last playoff meeting: Greybull beat Big Horn 27-25 in a 2A quarterfinal game on Oct. 30, 2015, in Greybull.
State championships: Big Horn four, most recent in 2013. … Greybull one, in 1960.
Previous title game record: Big Horn, 4-9. … Greybull, 1-1.
The path to Laramie: Big Horn squeaked past Pinedale 20-14 in overtime in the quarterfinals and beat Newcastle 27-7 in the semis. … Greybull blasted Wheatland 61-22 in the first round and shut out Glenrock 26-0 in the semis.
The case for the Rams: The Rams have the experience to play in the pressure of a title game — this is their third visit to Laramie the past four years. Big Horn isn’t here by fluke: Its offense is the best in 2A, averaging 400 yards per game, and its defense gives up just 214. Colton Williams can beat teams by rushing (1,660 yards, 25 TDs), catching (416 yards, 4 TDs) or on special teams (leads 2A with 24.3 yards per punt return). Nolan McCafferty fronts a defense that has a plus-14 turnover ratio, best in 2A. Talented, experienced, motivated? That’s a tough combo to stop, and that’s the combo Big Horn is bringing to Laramie.
The case for the Buffaloes: Greybull is one successful two-point conversion away from entering this week undefeated. All season, the offense has been salty (47.9 points per game, best in 2A), but it’s the defense that’s carried the load. The Buffs have 2A’s top run defense, giving up just 71.3 yards per game, and stopped cold undefeated Glenrock’s heavy-duty rushing game last week in the semis. Six players average at least 10 defensive points per game. The offense is predicated on Dawson Forcella and his ability to run (1,483 rushing yards) and score (23 TDs), but he’s got help from an efficient-enough passing game that can do the job when needed. And the senior class is massive and focused.
The pick: The big question entering this week is if Greybull spent all its playoff mojo in Glenrock last week. The victory against the previously undefeated Herders proved Greybull belongs here, but often we see teams who gear up and play beautifully a semifinal game like that have difficulty going to the well one more time the next week. That’s why I think the Buffs won’t dominate the Rams like they did the Herders. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that Greybull is deep, senior-laden and motivated to get the school’s first football title in 56 years. Greybull 30, Big Horn 24.
Class 1A 11-man, 1 p.m. Saturday
Pine Bluffs Hornets (3E, 8-2) vs. Tongue River Eagles (2E, 8-2)
Series record: Tongue River leads 3-0.
Last meeting: Tongue River beat Pine Bluffs 28-14 on Oct. 14 in Dayton.
Last playoff meeting: First playoff meeting.
State championships: Pine Bluffs zero. … Tongue River five, most recent in 1974.
Previous title game record: Pine Bluffs, 0-3. … Tongue River, 1-5.
The path to Laramie: Pine Bluffs beat Rocky Mountain 23-14 in the first round and Upton-Sundance 19-13 in the semis in back-to-back road games. … Tongue River topped Cokeville 27-12 in the opening round and Shoshoni 37-6 in the second round.
The case for the Hornets: By statistical measure, Pine Bluffs is the superior team in this matchup. The Hornets gain more yards than the Eagles (350.4 ypg to 317.4) and give up fewer (188.3 to 198.1). The talent is there: No Class 1A 11-man running back in the state has more rushing yards than Ruger Lewis’ 1,703, and he reached that total without playing in every game. Of the team’s two losses so far this season, the Hornets have already avenged one; they can avenge the other on Saturday. And Pine Bluffs, as noted above, has the added inspiration of playing to earn the school’s first state football championship.
The case for the Eagles: The Eagles have been here before, coming up short in last year’s 1A 11-man title game, so they won’t be awed by the War or thrown off by the unexpected twists the experience of a title game will bring. They’ll be prepared. It doesn’t really show on the stat sheets, but Tongue River has been one of the state’s most consistent teams, and that also means consistently improving. Brennan Kutterer has been a triple threat as a runner (1,452 yards, 21 TDs), passer (524 yards) and tackler (team-high 206 defensive points). However, he bears a disproportionate load for his team, and he’ll need more help than usual to hold off the Hornets. If TR’s role players make plays when they have the opportunity, then watch out.
The pick: When these teams played less than a month ago, it was a tight one; the game was tied 14-14 entering the fourth quarter. To boot, Pine Bluffs played without Lewis in that game. With him ready to play in the title game, there’s absolutely no reason to think the Hornets can’t beat the Eagles. If the Eagles can adjust to Lewis’ presence quickly, then they’ll be able to control the pace and play to their style. If not, the Hornets are in prime position to hoist their first state football title trophy. This one may come down to a late fourth-quarter drive and either a big score or a big stop. May be the best game of the weekend — and that’s saying something. Tongue River 28, Pine Bluffs 21.
Class 4A, 4 p.m. Saturday
Natrona Mustangs (5, 6-5) vs. Sheridan Broncs (2, 10-1)
Series record: Natrona leads 56-44-6.
Last meeting: Sheridan beat Natrona 37-13 on Oct. 14 in Casper.
Last playoff meeting: Sheridan beat Natrona 35-10 in a 4A semifinal game on Nov. 6, 2015, in Sheridan.
State championships: Natrona 17, most recent in 2014. … Sheridan 24, most recent in 2015.
Previous title game record: Natrona, 10-5. … Sheridan, 14-6.
The path to Laramie: Natrona beat Kelly Walsh 37-21 in the first round and upset Gillette 30-28 in the semifinals. … Sheridan handled Cheyenne East 34-17 in the quarterfinals and Rock Springs 35-6 in the second round.
The case for the Mustangs: No team in 4A started slower than Natrona, which posted shutout losses to Cheyenne Central and Cheyenne East the first two weeks of the season. Since then, Natrona hasn’t been a crew of world-beaters, but the Mustangs won the right games — the playoff games. All of a sudden, the team that started the season as the team couldn’t score is finishing the season as the team that can’t be stopped. Brett Brenton and Jesse Harshman make a nice 1-2 combo on offense; Thomas Robitaille leads a wrecking crew on defense; Riley Shepperson might have the best kicking leg in the state. Most importantly, the gears are meshing at exactly the right time.
The case for the Broncs: We knew all season long Sheridan would be a prime contender to repeat. And aside from a 24-21 loss to Gillette in the Energy Bowl, Sheridan has made good on that assumption. They have 4A’s top defense and top passing offense. They protect the ball: QB Drew Boedecker has a 25-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and the team averages less than one turnover per game. Coy Steel is one of the best deep threats in Wyoming, and the defense plays well as a unit. A flexible, diverse and deep offense; an opportunistic, fundamentally sound defense. Sounds like the recipe for a state champ.
The pick: Class 4A has had remarkable parity the last 20-some years: Only one program, Rock Springs in 2001 and 2002, has repeated as the big-school champion since 1994. And Natrona has won the 4A title every even-numbered year this decade (2010, 2012 and 2014). So the historical precedents against the Broncs are definitely there. But history doesn’t dictate destiny. Natrona proved that last week; now Sheridan can prove that this week. In a little bit of a shootout… Sheridan 42, Natrona 30.
If I picked against your favorite squad this week, no worries. My picks clearly don’t mean much, at least not after last week:
Last week: 6-4 (60 percent). This season: 244-56 (81 percent).
So… who do YOU have winning the five title games this weekend? Leave a comment and let’s chat about all the fun that might go down in the Gem City this weekend.