The past few years in Class 1A 11-man have been pretty predictable: Cokeville, Lusk, occasionally Southeast, and everyone else.
Not this year.
Graduation, coaching turnover, program resurgence and more make the classification more turbulent and parity-filled than ever. Several squads have a better-than-average chance at hoisting the state championship trophy in November.
When the top programs graduate a lot of players and the mid-range programs don’t, it means the race is wide open.
Four questions to answer
Cokeville again, right? Don’t be so sure. The Panthers have won four of the past five Class 1A 11-man championships but probably face their toughest challenge of the 2010s this year. Although the Panthers are still the prohibitive favorites, they’ll face tough challenges from improved West Conference foes like Rocky Mountain and Shoshoni and may see even tougher challengers come from the East.
Like who? Well, Lingle, Upton-Sundance, Southeast and Tongue River could all be better than last year, and Lingle in particular seems poised for a big breakthrough. Don’t be surprised if the classification’s two smallest schools (Lingle and Cokeville), who both had to opt up to 11-man after their enrollments had them in six-man, end up facing off for the state title.
Which team is most likely to play spoiler for that scenario? Shoshoni. The Wranglers return all four of their all-conference selections and both their all-state picks, seniors Patrick Forster and Connor Wilkinson. Although Shoshoni hasn’t won a playoff game since 2001, this might be the year the Wranglers cause some serious damage in the postseason.
Hey, you forgot to mention Lusk. Right? Nope… With a new coach and just one of its seven all-state players back, the Tigers are in full rebuilding mode. However, for Lusk, that means something different than it does for most schools. The Tigers are still a favorite for a playoff berth, but making it back to a title game will be difficult for a team with something Lusk teams aren’t used to having: a lack of experience.
Four players to watch
Colten Wunder, Lingle. The Doggers’ leading tackler from a year ago leads a stacked Lingle defense that returns six of its top nine tacklers. If Wunder can provide consistency in the front seven, he could be the key to a run at a conference — or state — title.
Ellis Toomer, Cokeville. The all-state selection is Cokeville’s leading returning rusher, receiver and tackler. For better or for worse, maintaining Cokeville’s dynasty will fall heavily on Toomer and his senior classmates.
Connor Wilkinson, Shoshoni. Wilkinson pulled off a rare double dip last year by leading the Wranglers in both rushing (666 yards, 7 TDs) and receiving (231 yards, 1 TD). He’s also a cornerstone of the Wranglers’ defense.
Jeff Burroughs, Southeast. An all-stater as a sophomore, Burroughs missed most of last year with a broken leg. Despite that, he still led the Cyclones in rushing and passing yards — showing both his talent and his importance to his team. His presence will be key in Southeast’s attempt to bounce back to its winning ways.
Four key games
Shoshoni at Rocky Mountain, Sept. 11. Both the Wranglers and Grizzlies have high hopes in 2015. And if either one wants to challenge Cokeville for supremacy in the West Conference, they have to win this key league opener.
Cokeville at Shoshoni, Sept. 18. Cokeville’s toughest conference road game comes early in the season, and that plays to Shoshoni’s advantage. An experienced Wrangler squad might just be game enough to give the defending champs a tussle.
Southeast at Lingle, Sept. 25. The Cyclones have been a sleeper team this offseason, but they could be a surprise contender out of the East if everyone returns healthy. This game against the Doggers could be a huge statement game for Southeast.
Lusk at Lingle, Oct. 9. Lingle has beaten Lusk just once in the past decade. And if the Doggers want to be legit contenders for the conference and state crowns, they’ll have to find a way to overcome their perennial nemesis.
Predicted order of finish
East: Lingle, Upton-Sundance, Southeast, Lusk, Tongue River, Moorcroft, Pine Bluffs. West: Cokeville, Shoshoni, Rocky Mountain, Riverside, Burlington, Wind River, Saratoga, Wyoming Indian.
Preseason top five: Cokeville, Lingle, Shoshoni, Upton-Sundance, Southeast.
Way-too-early title game score prediction
Cokeville 20, Lingle 14. Even when Cokeville is down, it’s good. The Panthers have enough talent in tow to win it all — but so do about five other teams in the classification. Look for a lot of parity at the top, and maybe even a surprise champion. Until then, though, count on the team that’s won four of the past five 1A 11-man titles.
In short: 1A 11-man is going to be fun this year. Even teams that finish second or third in their respective conferences will be legit threats to win a state championship. That sort of unpredictability should give us plenty to talk about… so leave a comment and let’s chat!
Next week: Class 2A.