Once again, Class 1A 11-man appears predictable.
Just not in the same ways it was a couple years ago.
The 2015 season played out with uncertainty. No teams went undefeated, and neither one of the two top seeds in the playoffs reached the state title game.
The likelihood of such parity playing out again this year, though, is pretty slim. The favorites are loaded, and the distinction between lions and lambs seems clear.
But that’s why they play the games, right?
Four questions to answer
Can Upton-Sundance repeat? Not only can the Patriots repeat — they will be the favorites to do so. Of the Patriots’ six all-state selections last year, four were underclassmen. And with those four (seniors Hunter Woodard, John Sullivan and Thomas Davis and junior Dawson Butts), the Patriots will be the odds-on favorites to win Class 1A 11-man.
Is anyone else even in the discussion? Yes, but not really. Shoshoni could be Upton-Sundance’s biggest challenge to a title defense, and the two teams will play each other in Week 3 in what will likely be an anticlimactic feeling-out. Sure, you can throw in Tongue River, Cokeville, Rocky Mountain and Southeast into the conversation… but for now, these teams have a lot more to prove than Upton-Sundance does.
How much did reclassification affect 1A 11-man? In some ways, a bunch; in others, hardly at all. Riverside, Burlington and Lingle made the move to six-man, while Wright and Moorcroft flip-flopped spots between 2A and 1A 11-man. The biggest ripples from those changes will be felt in the nonconference part of the schedule; with only six teams per conference, nonconference travel has been greatly increased. However, of the teams that left the classification, only Lingle has been past the first round of the playoffs the past three years. Reclassification affected a lot but likely won’t affect who goes deep in the playoffs.
Is the East Conference still ahead of the West Conference? Yes. The talent in 1A 11-man definitely shifts to the East side of the state this year, just as it did last year. Although it’s unlikely the East will sweep the West in the first round of the playoffs as it did a year ago, the East Conference league schedule is definitely more challenging — and probably will prepare those teams better for the postseason.
Four players to watch
Brennan Kutterer, Tongue River. There wasn’t a single player in the state who averaged more defensive points per game last season than Kutterer, who led 11-man football regardless of classification with 282 defensive points (25.6 per game) and 76 solo tackles. However, he is the only one of the Eagles’ top four tacklers to return, making his return that much more critical to the Eagles’ hopes for another run at a title game.
J.J. Pingetzer, Shoshoni. The player closest to Kutterer’s heels in defensive points last season was Pingetzer — and Pingetzer is back this year, too. The Wrangler senior was the centerpiece of Class 1A 11-man’s best defenses last season, winning the West Conference’s defensive player of the year honors while notching nearly 12 tackles per game.
Ruger Lewis, Pine Bluffs. The senior led Class 1A 11-man with 168.4 rushing yards per game and finished the year with 1,179 yards. No returning player in the state, regardless of classification, comes close to Lewis’ yards per game average. On an improving Pine Bluffs team, Lewis might be primed for an even better season this fall.
Dawson Butts, Upton-Sundance. As a sophomore, Butts was a huge part of the Patriots’ title run, leading the team in rushing yards (1,202), receiving yards (181) and interceptions (four). Now that opponents know what he is capable of doing, he may be keyed on more this fall, but that should open up opportunities for his teammates, a nice benefit to have on a team that’s both deep and rich with talent.
Four key games
Shoshoni at Southeast, Sept. 9. One of the most appealing games of the nonconference schedule pits two teams that both have lofty goals this fall. Throw in the revenge angle — Shoshoni’s loss to Southeast in last year’s quarterfinals ended an undefeated season — and the game takes on a significance most early September games don’t have.
Pine Bluffs at Upton-Sundance, Sept. 23. The Hornets’ 3-4 finish in 2015 was a huge step forward. Their growth will be tested, though, in their first conference game, which just happens to come on the home field of the defending state champions.
Shoshoni at Cokeville, Oct. 21. For now, the Wranglers are the favorites in the West Conference; the Panthers aren’t. How that role reversal changes this Week 8 matchup will be intriguing to see play out.
Tongue River at Upton-Sundance, Oct. 21. The rematch of last year’s 1A 11-man title game doesn’t happen until the final week of the regular season. But that will only add to the suspense — by then, this game may have bigger things at stake than just the memories of 2015.
Predicted order of finish
East Conference: Upton-Sundance, Tongue River, Southeast, Pine Bluffs, Wright, Lusk. West Conference: Shoshoni, Cokeville, Rocky Mountain, Saratoga, Wind River, Wyoming Indian.
Preseason top five: Upton-Sundance, Shoshoni, Tongue River, Southeast, Cokeville.
Way-too-early title game score prediction
Upton-Sundance 36, Shoshoni 20. The Patriots start the season head and shoulders above the rest of the classification. The question will be if they can stay there when every other team in the state starts gunning for them.
Cheesy 80s pop song that should play over the loudspeakers at War Memorial Stadium after this classification’s title game
Don’t You Forget About Me by Simple Minds. With Upton-Sundance the favorite to repeat as state champions, every other team is shouting this… And if U-S actually repeats, well, we won’t forget that, either.
So will it be a Patriot repeat? Will some underdog come in and spoil the fun for U-S fans? Will some team surprise us all? Let us see your predictions for 1A 11-man by leaving a comment.
Next Thursday: Class 2A preview.