With four championships in five years, discussions of Class 3A football usually begin — and often end — with Star Valley.
The Braves from Afton rolled up a 12-0 season last year, facing a slate full of challengers all gunning to take them down. None did, and the Braves were champs yet again.
For Star Valley to win a fifth title in six years, though, they’ll have to replace a graduating class for the ages.
But isn’t that what’s been happening for the better part of a decade?
Four questions to answer
Is Star Valley’s run over? Maybe. The Braves have won four championships in the past five years, but making it back to a title game will require a lot of growing up. Star Valley lost its top four rushers, top six receivers and 11 of its top 12 tacklers, so another championship run will rely on a bunch of players untested at the varsity level. But the Braves’ JV has been incredibly successful, so they might be up to the task again.
If not the Braves, then who? The West Conference is a murderer’s row of opponents. Cody, Powell and Jackson all have the athleticism, depth and coaching to make the West the kind of conference that demands the best from every team every week.
Will the East Conference have any title threats? Probably not. That said, the top four teams in the East — likely Lander, Riverton, Buffalo and Douglas, although not necessarily in that order — are capable programs. It’s just hard to overlook how easily the West swept the East in the first round of the playoffs last season without thinking something similar could happen again this season. The first three weeks will show us a lot.
What about the new coaches? Oh yeah. That’s a huge shift in 3A this year. Green River, Powell, Riverton and Worland all have new coaches this fall. Don’t expect wholesale changes for any of them, but do expect to see some tweaks that we didn’t see last year from each of these programs.
Four players to watch
Hyrum Hatch, Buffalo. Already a two-time all-state selection in Class 2A, Hatch will be one of 3A’s top players. He’s especially tough to stop on defense, where led the Bison defense in tackles a year ago with 100 and notched 34 solo tackles.
Brant Nelson, Star Valley. If the Braves are going to continue to run up championships, Nelson will be a big part of it. He completed an otherworldly 71.3 percent of his passes last year, completing 92 of 129 for 1,229 yards and 17 touchdowns last year. That’ll keep an offense running.
Jack Sweeney, Lander. Sweeney’s a double threat. He’s one of 3A’s top returning running backs, as he notched 534 yards and seven TDs last year. But he might be even more valuable on defense, where he finished tied for fourth in 3A in defensive points per game last year.
Colter Dawson, Jackson. Only a junior, Dawson was one of 3A’s best defensive players last year. The linebacker had 108 tackles, including 10 for loss, and tied Sweeney for fourth in 3A with just more than 19 defensive points per game.
Four key games
Cody at Powell, Sept. 25. If the Broncs haven’t had this game circled on their calendars since five minutes after the end of last season, they’d be crazy. The Broncs were supposed to be the ones in Laramie; instead, Powell went. Revenge might be too kind a word for what Cody wants, but Powell isn’t an easy out by any stretch.
Star Valley at Jackson, Sept. 25. West Conference play starts for the defending champs against their regional rivals in the Fall Brawl. Jackson would absolutely love to get this one and force Star Valley to chase — a position the Braves haven’t faced in a long time.
Lander at Riverton, Oct. 9. Combined, the Tigers and Wolverines have 10 returning all-conference selections; the rest of the teams in the East Conference have a combined six. So, yeah, in addition to being Fremont County’s premiere rivalry, the conference championship may end up being decided here.
Douglas at Buffalo, Oct. 16. Back in the same conference after a couple years separated, the longtime rivals both have high goals this season. This game often decides who wins the conference, or at minimum who hosts a playoff game; this year’s game will likely have similar high stakes.
Predicted order of finish
East Conference: Lander, Douglas, Riverton, Buffalo, Worland, Rawlins. West Conference: Star Valley, Powell, Jackson, Cody, Green River, Evanston.
Preseason top five: 1. Star Valley; 2. Powell; 3. Jackson; 4. Cody; 5. Lander.
Way-too-early title game score prediction
Star Valley 20, Powell 18. The kings of 3A are kings for a reason. West foes Powell, Cody and Jackson are all capable of throwing the Braves off the path (or winning the title themselves), but come the postseason, the Braves’ newbies won’t be newbies anymore.
Next Thursday: Class 4A.