Now that the regular season has come to an end and the 40 teams are set in their brackets, let’s take a quick look back at the regular season and highlight some teams that surprised, frustrated and grew this season:
Three biggest surprises: Wind River, Wright, Midwest. Zero expectations followed these teams into the 2021 season. Together, they combined for four victories in 2020, and entering 2021 didn’t give much of an indication of how much better each would be. Wind River jumped from 2-5 to 6-2; Wright went from 2-6 to 4-4; Midwest went from 0-8 to 4-4 and hosting a playoff game for the first time since 2013, the longest such streak broken in the first round this year. It’s not so much the leaps forward as how unexpected they were — Wind River had good numbers but a small senior class and a decade of losing seasons, Wright lost every all-conference player from a tough season in 2020, and Midwest was set to rely on a bunch of freshmen. Yet here they are, not only in the playoffs but solid contenders.
Three biggest frustrations: Cheyenne Central, Mountain View, Kaycee. Cheyenne Central and Kaycee, despite being worlds apart, have similar 2021 stories — high expectations after a solid season in 2020 that ended with a frustrating playoff loss, a slow start to the 2021 season, a Week 8 fight just to make it to the playoffs. Neither one expected to be in that kind of situation in August. Mountain View, meanwhile, is out of the playoffs for the first time in a decade after an injury-plagued 1-7 season that just snowballed. Hopefully for each program, 2022 brings brighter days.
Biggest building seasons: Evanston, Newcastle, Kemmerer. These three teams did not make the playoffs, but each made big steps forward as programs from where they were in 2020. Evanston was the feel-good story of the first half of the 3A season before stumbling down the stretch in West Conference play, but the Red Devils still finished 5-4. Newcastle was scrappy and tough and darn near earned a playoff berth before losing by two to Wheatland in Week 8. And Kemmerer, long dormant, got a couple solid victories and played tough otherwise, big steps for a program that exorcised the weight of two consecutive winless seasons during 2021.
Now, the third season begins.
The 2021 playoff brackets have some familiar faces: Natrona is in the playoffs for the 30th consecutive season, Cokeville the 29th, Big Horn the 23rd, Douglas the 20th. But Dubois is in for the first time in five years, the longest playoff drought broken by any team in any of the five brackets this year.
Some usual suspects aren’t around, though: In addition to Mountain View missing out for the first time in 10 years, Farson is out for the first time in eight years.
Probably the best feel-good story of the first round is in Encampment, where the Tigers are hosting a playoff game for the first time in program history. Encampment has won five in a row and is 6-1 entering the postseason. For a team that’s only three years old, you can’t ask for much more than that — except for maybe the program’s first postseason home victory?
Speaking of which: 20 teams will win this weekend, while 20 other teams will see their seasons come to a close. Which ones will it be? Well, here are some thoughts, with teams I think will win in bold:
(8) Cheyenne Central at (1) Sheridan: The Indians stayed close to the Broncs in the regular season and could make this one interesting, but it’s tough to go against the Broncs at home in a playoff game.
(5) Thunder Basin at (4) Natrona: Natrona did the thing two weeks ago. I don’t know if the ‘Bolts will allow such dominance this time around, but NC’s was an impressive victory, one I can’t ignore.
(7) Kelly Walsh at (2) Rock Springs: The only 4A playoff rematch that wasn’t a close game in the regular season wasn’t close for a reason. The Tigers definitely have the upper hand here.
(6) Campbell County at (3) Cheyenne East: The Camels are a program on the rise, and East knows they will be problematic (see their regular-season matchup for proof). But I still like the defending champs here.
(4W) Powell at (1E) Douglas: It’s too easy to forget just how completely Powell handled Douglas in Week 3 when the Panthers won 17-0. This one might be closer, but Powell should be really confident here.
(3E) Buffalo at (2W) Jackson: Buffalo has had a nice season and will be competitive. But Jackson is thinking bigger than a date with the Bison.
(4E) Worland at (1W) Cody: When these two teams played in the regular season, Worland hung around and lost 35-21. But it wasn’t really that close, and Cody will show that.
(3W) Star Valley at (2E) Lander: The Tigers closed the season strong and won three in a row to earn hosting duties. And a home playoff game will be a nice consolation prize for the third year in a row.
(4E) Big Horn at (1W) Lyman: I’ll be honest: I did not see a repeat of 2020’s success coming for the Eagles in 2021. To the credit of the defending champs, they haven’t repeated 2020 — they’ve been even better.
(3W) Big Piney at (2E) Wheatland: Will the real Wheatland please stand up? If the Bulldogs do, they’ll be fine. If they don’t, the Punchers absolutely have the capability of winning on the road.
(4W) Cokeville at (1E) Torrington: No one likes to see themselves opposite Cokeville in their playoff bracket, especially as the Panthers try to send coach Todd Dayton off right in his final season. Watch for an inspired Panther group to make this a heck of a game.
(3E) Upton-Sundance at (2W) Lovell: Both these teams have been tough, darn tough, all season long. I think neither will go down without a fight. And I still like the Bulldogs at home.
Class 1A nine-man
(4E) Wright at (1W) Shoshoni: The Panthers come into the playoffs having lost three of their last four. A 7-1 Shoshoni team will be ready for whatever Wright tries to throw at them.
(3W) Wind River at (2E) Lusk: Wind River was the team I least expected to see at 6-2, yet here they are. And they may very well pull off this upset. The Tigers are the favorites, though… but only if they bring their “A” game.
(4W) Riverside at (1E) Pine Bluffs: Sorry, but this undefeated train ain’t stopping for the Rebels.
(3E) Southeast at (2W) Rocky Mountain: Game of the week? Quite possibly, as the defending champion Cyclones won’t fall easy and the Grizzlies know it.
Class 1A six-man
(4W) Dubois at (1E) Hulett: Playing the same team in Week 8 as you do in the postseason is always an awkward situation, especially when you know prior to Week 8 that you’re going to play a week later. Who learned what? Rams could be a spoiler…
(3E) Guernsey at (2W) Encampment: This week’s game against Guernsey is the first time the Tigers and Vikings have faced each other, the only such game in any bracket. As noted already, the Tigers have put together an impressive run so far. Encampment should keep rolling.
(4E) Kaycee at (1W) Snake River: The undefeated Rattlers figured out the winning formula early, and they’ve kept with it all season. No reason to think it will stop now.
(3W) Meeteetse at (2E) Midwest: I did not figure the Oilers as playoff hosts this year, and this will be a great boost to their program and their young guns. But Meeteetse is the better team this year.
Here are the results of my picks from last week and this season:
Last week: 28-4 (88 percent). This season: 232-44 (84 percent).
Who’s ready to pull a big first-round upset, and who’s read to leave a goose egg on the opponents’ scoreboard as they cruise on to the semifinals? Leave a comment here, or hit me up on the Facebook page or on Twitter.
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