Class 3A football over the past 30 years is full of legacies.
Star Valley’s four titles in five years from 1992-96, Riverton’s three-peat from 1997-99; Worland’s trio of titles from 2001-03; Buffalo’s 22-0 run from 2004-05; Douglas’ three-peat from 2008-10; Powell’s follow-up three-peat from 2011-13; Star Valley’s four titles in five years (again) from 2015-19… Yeah, 3A has been full of sustained success.
Cody’s place in that pantheon is secure, with titles in 2014, 2017, 2020 and 2021.
Another championship in 2022 is no guarantee, but the Broncs, by every conceivable measure — including perhaps the two most important, returning players and 3A coaches’ preseason picks — are the favorites to win it all again this season.
In a classification where dynasties have come and gone, the big question seems to be not if Cody will win again, but how long the Broncs will stay as 3A’s dominant team.
Four questions to answer
Can anyone stop Cody from three-peating? Only Cody. One of the most amazing statistics of the 2022 offseason pertains to 3A all-state selections. Cody has six of them returning. The rest of 3A has four, combined. The Broncs have the talent not only to be three-time champs but potentially one of the best 3A teams in history.
So no one else even has a chance? Hey, it could happen. And if it’s going to happen, it’s likely to come from Douglas or Buffalo. Those two teams in the 3A East are drawing the most attention as threats to the Broncs’ run, in part because of the talent they return on both sides of the ball. Neither team enters the season as complete as Cody, but they could both end the season that way.
What’s up with the West? After Cody, lots of uncertainty. Jackson and Powell each lost seven all-staters and return zero, and Jackson has a new coach. Green River may be 3A’s most improved team but was 0-8 last year, Evanston has some momentum but graduated a bunch, and Star Valley has a group of players that have been successful at every level except for varsity. As a whole, the conference is down; as a group, it’s as competitive as ever. After Cody.
And out East — still Douglas? Douglas is still the favorite. But Buffalo has been gaining some momentum and returns several key players. Lander has also hosted playoff games in each of the past three years and can’t be overlooked as a threat. However, only one East team (now-2A Torrington in 2018) has reached the title game in the past seven years, so it makes sense the early eyes are out West.
Preseason class MVP
Luke Talich, Cody. The Broncs’ quarterback/safety is drawing considerable attention from colleges, and for good reason. He can hurt defenses with both his arm and his legs, and as a safety he’s one of Cody’s top defensive players, as well. He is the centerpiece of Cody’s three-peat attempt, and for the Broncs, that’s a good thing.
Preseason class breakout player
Chase Stewart, Star Valley. The Braves’ No. 2 receiver last year had a good season — 15 catches, 291 yards, three touchdowns — but they portended a bigger 2022 to come. The fact that the Braves also return their quarterback bodes well for a player who has the potential to be the go-to player in an aerial plan that accentuates big-play opportunities.
Other players to watch
Karson Ewing, Douglas. Last year’s East Conference defensive player of the year will, somehow, have to carry more of the load this fall for a less experienced Bearcats defense that only gets back three of its top 10 tacklers. If anyone is up to it, though, it’s Ewing, who didn’t have huge numbers (39 tackles, 5 TFLs) but caused huge havoc to opposing offenses.
Matt Nelson, Cody. If you didn’t know Nelson before last year’s championship game, you sure knew him after — he’s the one who had two of Cody’s three consecutive pick-sixes in the second half. But this should not have been surprising; the two-time all-stater has made it a habit to have big games in big moments.
Blake Bell, Buffalo. The Bison relied a lot on Bell last year, and he delivered — 37 catches, 829 yards and 11 touchdowns. His 22.4 yards per catch was the best among 3A’s top receivers, but coach Rob Hammond said Bell will be more involved with other aspects of the passing game (think screens and hitches) to take advantage of Bell’s athleticism, to make the Bison more versatile and to keep defenses honest.
Kade Weber, Worland. Weber’s eye-popping number under center is 70.1%, his completion percentage. That kind of absurd percentage is normally reserved for six-man, but Weber put up those numbers when completing 143 of 204 passes for the Warriors last season. With an experienced set of receivers returning with him, those totals could, amazingly, be even better this year.
Four key games
Cody at Jackson, Sept. 23. Although it’s the rematch of the past two Class 3A title games, the two Broncs are trending in different directions — Cody up, Jackson twirling toward freedom. If Jackson can finally get a W in this series, it’ll completely turn 3A expectations upside down.
Star Valley at Powell, Sept. 30. The West is always competitive, but the 2022 season brings a ton of uncertainty to a usually steady conference. How it all shakes out, though, will be determined in great measure by what happens between the Braves and Panthers.
Douglas at Buffalo, Sept. 30. The two early frontrunners in the East have a long and storied history, but Douglas has won 14 of the past 17 in this series and the past two in a row. The Bison’s conference title hopes will hang on this home game.
Worland at Lander, Oct. 14. Both of these teams have been on the 3A margins the past few years — good enough to be taken seriously, not quite ready for a breakout victory that turns them into a true title contender. Whoever wins here could be a big first-round spoiler if fate finally smiles on them.
Predicted order of finish
East Conference: Douglas; Buffalo; Lander; Worland; Riverton; Rawlins.
West Conference: Cody; Star Valley; Powell; Green River; Evanston; Jackson.
Preseason top five: 1. Cody; 2. Douglas; 3. Buffalo; 4. Star Valley; 5. Lander.
Way-too-early title game score prediction
Cody 36, Douglas 20. November football is always different from August football, and 3A teams have a way of pulling some postseason surprises. Still, the title is Cody’s until someone else does something to show us otherwise that they deserve it.
Next Thursday: Class 4A.