Oct. 31, 1981.
The Newcastle Dogies are riding a seemingly unstoppable wave of momentum. They’re 8-0 and cruising into the Class A title game against Jackson. The Dogies won a ton of close games, but that’s not surprising; this is Newcastle’s eighth consecutive winning season. These Newcastle kids know how to win. They beat Torrington 18-14 two weeks ago and Wheatland 7-6 last week to get here.
Those two victories came after a bye week, which was created after Sheridan dropped Newcastle from its schedule after the little guys from Weston County went up to Sheridan the year before and beat — nay, shut out — the Class AA big guys, 14-0. In Sheridan.
But this is no fairy tale. Jackson’s good, and strong, and motivated. Maybe most importantly, the Broncs are at home. Newcastle loses that Class A title game, 13-6. But there’s nothing to suggest the Dogies can’t return, and soon, to try again.
Oct. 19, 1998.
The Big Horn Rams trudge off a cold, muddy field in Gillette, defeated. They’ve lost to Hulett, 12-0, in the first half of a tiebreaking triangular playoff. For the fourth consecutive year — every year since the state abandoned nine-man football and forced the Rams to move to 11-man — the Rams will miss the playoffs.
In that 1998 season, the Rams manage three victories, beating winless Greybull, tiny Meeteetse and fellow nine-man transplant Midwest. But Ten Sleep doubled them up, rival Tongue River beat them by 34, and conference rivals Upton and Hulett beat them by 35 and 23 points, respectively. There’s nothing to suggest a Rams’ resurgence is near.
Nov. 8, 2003.
On their home field, the Big Horn Rams celebrate with a state championship trophy in hand. They’ve just completed a perfect 11-0 season. Lusk, the team Big Horn beat 29-8 in the Class 2A championship game that afternoon, was nothing more than another victim. Lusk was the team that kept Big Horn at bay in the 2002 title game; Big Horn left no doubt in 2003 as to which was the better team.
In that 11-0 season, Big Horn won all but one game by at least 21 points. From wire to wire, the Rams had the mojo of a champion. Just the second title in school history was theirs. Even the novice could see the Rams had the chance to win a heck of a lot more titles, and soon.
Sept. 24, 2004.
After 29 consecutive losses, the Newcastle Dogies have some hope. The Dogies are already 0-4, and Buffalo pasted them 49-6 the previous week in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score might suggest. A victory seems so long ago; a time when the Dogies were expected to win seems almost like a different reality.
But winless Wheatland was coming to Schoonmaker Field. This was going to be Newcastle’s best chance to get a victory and to end the losing streak that dated back to August of 2001 — more than three years on the calendar — and the program’s best chance to win its first home game since 1999.
This night was Newcastle’s. The Dogies scored 34 points, their most in a single game since before the turn of the century, and defeated the Bulldogs by 14.
Yeah, Newcastle didn’t win another game in 2004. And, yeah, the Dogies’ victory came in a losing season, their 21st straight losing season in streak that eventually reached 22, setting a state record no program wants to have. Never had a victory against a winless opponent meant so much. Highs aren’t supposed to be this low.
Nov. 10, 2007.
Big Horn’s back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2004 are memories now. The Rams’ focus is on winning the school’s fourth state title. But against Riverside in one of the best games of the decade, Big Horn can’t stop what can only look like fate’s predetermined outcome. In the game’s final minutes, Riverside drives 99 yards to score, and then converts on a gutsy two-point conversion, to earn a 21-20 victory and the state title.
When losing after giving up a 99-yard drive, and giving up the subsequent two-point conversion, tears will come — either from grief or from frustration. Unfortunately for Big Horn, the loss is a harbinger of losses to come: Big Horn will lose two state title games in the next three years after losing to Riverside, falling short in 2008 and again in 2010. So many tears shouldn’t be shed in times of so much success, but the Rams had the grief or frustration to justify them.
Big Horn’s next state championship would come, in part, thanks to the head coach on the Riverside sideline that day in 2007.
Oct. 21, 2011.
Newcastle coach Matt Conzelman is nearing the end of his third season as head coach. He’s seen his team steadily improve: The Dogies went a traditionally Newcastle-ish 1-8 in 2009, his first year, but finished 4-6 in his second year and were competitive (and headed for a winning record and a semifinal appearance) heading into a key 2A East Conference game against Big Horn by late October 2011.
Big Horn and Newcastle hadn’t played each other until 2009, when reclassification tossed the two schools, traditionally separated by a definitive size difference, together into the hodgepodge 2A East Conference. The little guys with lots of recent tradition had no trouble with the big guys with lots of recent struggles; Big Horn beat Newcastle in 2009 and again in 2010.
Not this time. Not in 2011. This was Newcastle’s chance to show its slow, incremental successes were not accidents. No, Newcastle was for real. And the best way to prove that was by beating the reigning conference champ, a program with a ton of success and title-game trips the past decade. So the Dogies did just that. Final: Newcastle 35, Big Horn 21.
Oct. 19, 2012.
Newcastle was 8-0. Big Horn was 8-0. And they were going to play each other in the final game of the regular season to determine the 2A East Conference champion and the team that would host the first two rounds of playoff games.
Michael McGuire — the coach who helped Riverside top Big Horn back in 2007 — was now the Rams’ leader, in his first season with his new squad. And this was a chance to prove something. Maybe that the Rams were better than everyone thought. Maybe that the title-game losses, five of them since 2000, were the old Big Horn. Maybe that his team, not the Dogies, was the team that could give those big shots out in the West, Lyman and Lovell, their biggest challenge in the playoffs. Maybe that the Rams’ past distractions were now memories.
Big Horn 55, Newcastle 6.
Both teams lost in the 2A semifinals, Big Horn to Lovell and Newcastle to Lyman.
Sept. 13, 2013.
After the consistent success the Dogies found under Conzelman and the revival of pride the Rams found under McGuire, everyone could see the opening game of the 2A East conference schedule would be important. And, eventually, it was — it decided which team would host a playoff game and which one would have to travel.
In one of the highest-scoring games of the season, the Rams beat the Dogies 50-43. However, for both squads, the game was more than a victory or loss. The game was an indicator that both programs had changed.
Newcastle was no longer the pushover, the laughingstock. In a way, the Dogies now resembled the Dogies of old, the program even the likes of Sheridan were scared to play.
Big Horn was no longer the struggling little guy. The Rams had forged a new identity, one found in the early 2000s and refined after several near-misses in the postseason, near-misses that were appeased somewhat by the state championship the Rams won later in the 2013 season.
And those games between the two, from a rivalry that didn’t exist prior to their 2009 happenstance conference marriage, would, for the foreseeable future, always be critical.
Friday’s game between Big Horn and Newcastle is just the sixth in the series between them, but, like usual in this short series, the winner has numerous spoils awaiting them.
If Newcastle can somehow upset the top-ranked Rams, the Dogies will win the 2A East Conference title and earn home-field advantage in the playoffs. Big Horn can’t quite pull off the same feat alone — the Rams need Burns to upset Wheatland on Friday, too, in conjunction with a victory against Newcastle to win the conference on Friday. Otherwise, Big Horn will need to beat Wheatland next week to win the conference title. Chances are good that the teams will finish first and second, in some order, in the East this year.
Either way, though, the fact that the Big Horn-Newcastle game means as much as it does is a testament to two programs that have become consistently successful. Newcastle had to fight through 22 consecutive losing seasons to get here; Big Horn had to fight through being a nine-man also-ran and an an 11-man afterthought.
The fact that this rivalry has become so important so fast is something for each team to cherish on its own sideline, something to admire on the other.
The game between Big Horn and Newcastle is not the only one that could determine a conference champion. In fact, eight of the nine conference champions could be decided by the end of Week 7, and five schools (Natrona, Riverton, Douglas, Newcastle and Cokeville) can win their respective conference crowns simply with a victory:
4A: Natrona can win the No. 1 seed with a victory.
3A East: The Riverton-Douglas winner will win the conference title.
3A West: No one can win the conference this week.
2A East: Newcastle can win the conference with a win; Big Horn can win the conference with a victory AND a Burns victory.
2A West: Mountain View can win the conference title with a victory AND a Greybull victory.
1A 11-man East: Lusk has won the conference title.
1A 11-man West: Cokeville can win the conference title if its JV can beat Wyoming Indian (see explainer below).
1A six-man East: Guernsey has won the conference title.
1A six-man West: Dubois can win the conference title with a victory AND a St. Stephens victory.
Playoff watch: Seventeen schools have already qualified for the playoffs — Natrona, Sheridan, Gillette, Cheyenne East, Riverton, Douglas, Cody, Powell, Big Horn, Newcastle, Lusk, Cokeville, Guernsey, Kaycee, Snake River, Dubois and Meeteetse. Meanwhile, five others (Burns, Wright, Kemmerer, Saratoga and Wyoming Indian) have been mathematically eliminated. The rest is still up for grabs. And only two seeds, Lusk’s No. 1 seed in the 1A 11-man East and Guernsey’s No. 1 in the 1A six-man East, have been set.
This time of year, I feel like I could put every game down as an important game to watch, because basically every game is important for playoff seeding. But here are a few games this week that I’m keeping a special eye on:
In Class 4A, Natrona can wrap up the No. 1 seed in the playoffs if it can beat Sheridan on Friday in Casper. The Mustangs and Broncs have a deep and storied rivalry, and this one between 7-0 NC and 6-1 Sheridan should be another classic. And if Sheridan finds a way to win, we’ll have a messy tiebreaker to settle atop the classification for those all-important top seeds. …
The winner of Friday’s showdown between Douglas and Riverton will be the top seed from the 3A East. Need we say more? …
Another big game lurks in the 3A West, where Powell faces Jackson. While some of the luster wore off this game when Jackson fell to Cody last week, the Broncs from Teton County are still definitely in the hunt for a home playoff game and, if everything falls right, can still have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win and help. But Powell is a proud program, and the Panthers are at home. …
One of the toughest games for me to pick this week was Star Valley-Worland. A playoff spot is likely on the line in Washakie County. …
An underrated but key 2A West game is the one between Greybull and Lyman. The winner is likely going to get a home playoff game — a big deal in a parity-filled classification. …
The 1A 11-man West has turned messy. Cokeville is in, and Saratoga and Wyoming Indian are out, leaving five teams chasing four playoff spots. Four of those five play each other this week: Rocky Mountain’s at Riverside and Shoshoni’s at Burlington. By Saturday, will we have more clarity, or more chaos? …
And how about the 1A six-man West? A conference full of parity just keeps throwing us surprises. The six-man West is the only conference in the state where every team has at least one league loss, making the chase for the conference championship, and playoff seeding, really interesting.
1A 11-man West explainer: A quick note of clarification on Cokeville’s schedule this week. The Panthers’ varsity will play the Evanston JV on Wednesday, while their junior varsity plays conference opponent Wyoming Indian on Friday. The varsity game against Evanston’s JV will count toward Cokeville’s overall record, while the JV’s game against Wyoming Indian’s varsity will count toward both teams’ 1A 11-man West Conference standings but not toward Cokeville’s overall record for the season. This has happened a few times in 1A basketball, but to my knowledge it’s the first time it’s happened in football. …
On to the picks. Projected winners are in bold. You should know this by now. You probably do. But I say it anyway:
Cokeville at Evanston JV
Cheyenne East at Evanston
Gillette sophs at Upton-Sundance (at Sundance)
Cheyenne South at Rock Springs
Gillette at Laramie
Kelly Walsh at Cheyenne Central
Sheridan at Natrona
Douglas at Riverton
Green River at Cody
Jackson at Powell
Lander at Rawlins
Star Valley at Worland
Torrington at Buffalo
Big Horn at Newcastle
Burns at Wheatland
Lovell at Kemmerer
Lyman at Greybull
Mountain View at Big Piney
Pinedale at Wright
Thermopolis at Glenrock
Class 1A 11-man
Moorcroft at Pine Bluffs
Rocky Mountain at Riverside
Shoshoni at Burlington
Southeast at Lusk
Tongue River at Lingle
Wind River at Saratoga
Wyoming Indian at Cokeville JV
Class 1A six-man
Hanna at NSI
St. Stephens at Farson
Ten Sleep at Dubois
Class 1A six-man
Midwest at Hulett
Snake River at Kaycee
Guernsey-Sunrise already notched a forfeit victory against Rock River this week. Rock River does plan on playing Hulett next week, though.
Last week: 28-4 (88 percent). This season: 166-43 (79 percent).
For a full season schedule, including kickoff times for this week’s games, click here.
So, now that you’re all studied up… leave a comment. I’m ready to chat. Maybe some other folks are, too. I’ve started the conversation and everything….