The lack of surprises in the first two rounds, and the lack of surprises as to who’s playing in War Memorial Stadium this weekend, has been one of the big takeaways of the 2022 season.
Look at the teams playing in this week’s title games. Every one except Burlington entered the playoffs ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in their respective classifications in the final WyoPreps Coaches and Media Football Poll of the season — and Burlington was ranked third. Of Wyoming’s nine regular-season conference champions, eight are playing this weekend.
Five of the 10 teams playing this week were also in the title games last year; four (Sheridan, Cody, Shoshoni and Snake River) are the defending state champs in their respective classifications.
Everyone here deserves to be here. Nothing flukey or weird or surprising brought any of these teams to the precipice of a championship. They all showed exactly what’s possible when talent and timing combine to get the best out of a team.
We’ll see how that continues into Wyoming’s two-day football fest in Laramie. Here’s a glance at some of the key things to look for in this weekend’s championships, and some picks to consider:
Class 4A, 4 p.m. Saturday
Cheyenne East (2, 10-1) vs. Sheridan (1, 11-0)
Series record: Sheridan leads 31-15.
Last meeting: Sheridan beat Cheyenne East 42-39 on Sept. 30 in Sheridan.
Last playoff meeting: Cheyenne East beat Sheridan 31-21 on Nov. 6, 2020, in a Class 4A semifinal game in Cheyenne.
State championships: Cheyenne East five, most recently in 2020. … Sheridan 28, most recently in 2021.
Previous title game record: Cheyenne East, 5-3. … Sheridan, 18-7.
The path to the title game: Cheyenne East took care of Rock Springs 49-24 in the quarterfinals and held off a Natrona rally to win 55-36 in the semifinals. … Sheridan thumped Laramie 52-27 in the quarterfinals and outscored Cheyenne Central 63-42 in the semifinals.
The case for the Thunderbirds: Even though Sheridan is the undefeated team, a compelling argument exists that East has been the most dominant 4A team this year. In East’s 10 victories, none has been closer than 10 points. Their diverse offense moves the ball and scores points in bunches; if the T-Birds can hit their average and score 48 points in the title game, they’ll finish with 11-man’s all-time top-scoring offense in state history. Their only slip, that three-point loss in Sheridan, will be neutralized a bit by both revenge and the lack of home-field advantage that comes with playing at The War.
The case for the Broncs: Sheridan has been a charmed team all season; not too many teams that rank fourth in total offense and fifth in total defense go through a season undefeated. But Sheridan knows how to win. In one-possession games, the Broncs are 4-0, winning twice by three points, once by six and once by seven. Ultimately, that’s what separates Sheridan from other teams — they always play their best when their best is required. Oh, and they have a senior running back in Colson Coon who’s coming off a 519-yard rushing effort in the semifinals. Yes, you read that right.
The pick: It’s been a few years since we’ve had a 4A championship game come right down to the wire and the final possession. This could be the game that breaks that streak. Both teams are talented, experienced, savvy, motivated, well-coached, prepared… and you can’t ask for anything more than that. If it’s anything like the first game between these two, it’ll be worth the ticket price. Cheyenne East 44, Sheridan 41.
Class 3A, 3 p.m. Friday
Star Valley (2W, 9-2) vs. Cody (1W, 10-0)
Series record: Star Valley leads 25-13.
Last meeting: Cody beat Star Valley 35-25 on Oct. 7 in Afton.
Last playoff meeting: Cody beat Star Valley 24-17 on Nov. 5, 2021, in a Class 3A semifinal game in Sheridan.
State championships: Star Valley 12, most recently in 2019. … Cody seven, most recently in 2021.
Previous title game record: Star Valley, 11-10 … Cody, 7-5.
The path to the title game: Star Valley eased past Lander 41-7 in the quarterfinals before taking out Douglas on the road 48-27 in the semifinals. … Cody blasted Worland 63-14 in the quarterfinals and crushed Buffalo 42-7 in the semifinals.
The case for the Braves: If any 3A can stand up to Cody, it’s Star Valley. The Braves gave the Broncs a tussle a month ago before losing by 10, a moral victory if you believe those kinds of things exist. The offensive area the Braves excel at — passing, where they lead 3A — hits a Cody weak spot, as the Broncs rank 10th out of the 12 3A teams in pass defense (likely because all Cody’s opponents pass more because they get behind so quick, but still…). Aside from losses to Cody and to Sugar-Salem, Idaho, which is the top seed in Idaho’s 3A playoffs, the Braves have been dominant in every other game this season. They’ll be ready.
The case for the Broncs: Regardless of what happens Friday, this Cody team will go down as one of the best 3A teams ever. The Broncs are loaded with individual talent, to be sure, but what separates Cody from other talented teams is how they use that talent within a system that gets contributions from everybody on the roster. It sends opponents on an endless game of whack-a-mole; stop one guy, another burns you. Not many teams have 18 guys who have scored a touchdown, but Cody does. And teams with the top-ranked offense and the top-ranked defense in a classification tend to do well.
The pick: It’s hard to talk about this title game without a bit of speculation. Cody’s extraordinary two-way player Luke Talich was injured in the semifinals against Buffalo, and his status is uncertain for the title game. While Talich’s presence, or absence, changes things, it’s the idea that Cody could continue to thrive even without him that tilts the balance of this game. … Cody 30, Star Valley 21.
Class 2A, noon Friday
Lovell (1W, 10-0) vs. Big Horn (1E, 9-1)
Series record: Big Horn leads 5-4.
Last meeting: Lovell beat Big Horn 14-7 on Sept. 2 in Big Horn.
Last playoff meeting: Big Horn beat Lovell 23-12 on Oct. 31, 2014, in a Class 2A quarterfinal game in Big Horn.
State championships: Lovell two, most recently in 2011. … Big Horn seven, most recently in 2019.
Previous title game record: Lovell, 2-6. … Big Horn, 7-10.
The path to the title game: Lovell moved past Newcastle 47-14 in the quarterfinals and outplayed Cokeville to win 28-7 in the semifinals. … Big Horn won a pair of thrillers, rallying to beat Mountain View 28-26 in the quarterfinals and holding tough defensively to beat Lyman 7-0 in the semifinals.
The case for the Bulldogs: The last remaining undefeated team in Class 2A handed Big Horn its only loss of the season, a 14-7 thriller that necessitated a late goal-line stand from Lovell to win. The consistency afforded by having 2A’s No. 2 offense and No. 3 defense has led the Bulldogs to steady improvement throughout the season. Since Ws the first three weeks against Big Horn, Cokeville and Lyman, the Bulldogs have barely been challenged from any opponent. Throw on the fact that the Bulldogs have had the Laramie experience, losing 8-6 in last year’s 2A title game to Lyman, and Lovell won’t be caught wide-eyed at The War.
The case for the Rams: What a rebound season the Rams have had. After a scruddy-looking 3-6 season last year, Big Horn was back with a vengeance in 2022. They’ve run off nine consecutive victories to make it to Laramie, including three close games in the past month — 14-0 over rival Tongue River for the East championship and the two aforementioned playoff games. With 2A’s top offense, the Rams should feel confident that they can put up the yards and points necessary to hang with anyone. Combine those two things — mental momentum and physical prowess — and it’s easy to see why the Rams are absolutely a threat to win it all.
The pick: How in the world can someone say this game will be closer than the last time these two met? They actually finished within 8 yards of each other in total offense in that first matchup (Big Horn 222 yards, Lovell 214). Yet somehow I think this one will be. Much like last year’s 2A title game, this year’s game may come down to hits their conversions. … Lovell 21, Big Horn 20.
Class 1A nine-man, 1 p.m. Saturday
Shoshoni (1W, 9-1) vs. Pine Bluffs (1E, 10-0)
Series record: Pine Bluffs leads 5-3.
Last meeting: Pine Bluffs beat Shoshoni 34-26 on Sept. 1 in Shoshoni.
Last playoff meeting: Shoshoni beat Pine Bluffs 48-6 on Oct. 30, 2020, in a Class 1A nine-man quarterfinal game in Shoshoni.
State championships: Shoshoni three, most recently in 2021. … Pine Bluffs two, most recently in 2017.
Previous title game record: Shoshoni, 3-0. … Pine Bluffs, 2-3.
The path to the title game: Shoshoni whitewashed Lusk 53-12 in the quarterfinals and had little trouble with county rival Wind River 40-6 in the semifinals. … Pine Bluffs stopped Big Piney 45-16 in the quarterfinals and outscored Rocky Mountain 35-32 in the semifinals.
The case for the Wranglers: The defending 1A nine-man champions have been here before, obviously. The difference between last year and this year is that this year, they actually have to meet the Hornets in the playoffs. But Shoshoni should draw strength and confidence from experience and last year’s success in Laramie. Although nine-man’s No. 2 offense and No. 4 defense by yardage, the Wranglers are better than the stats show. A senior-laden team responded to the challenge of a loaded West Conference schedule, and the only setback — 34-26 to Pine Bluffs in Week 1 — will provide all of the motivation necessary.
The case for the Hornets: The big question entering the playoffs was if Pine Bluffs’ regular season had toughened up the Hornets enough for a deep playoff push. After last week, we can now say it was. After cruising through the regular season barely bothered, the past two weeks — particularly last week’s 35-32 nail-biting victory against Rocky Mountain — have shown Pine Bluffs hasn’t gotten soft against a soft schedule. Oh, and the numbers stack up well: Pine Bluffs outgained its opponents this year by more than 300 yards per game. Let that number sink in.
The pick: The title game we didn’t get last year is on the docket this year, and fortunately both teams appear to be at their best. The Week 1 game provided a good indication of how this one will go. Neither team will shy away from the challenge presented by the other. A big play, either in the first quarter to gain a mental edge or in the fourth quarter to break open a stalemate, might be what decides this one. … Pine Bluffs 32, Shoshoni 28.
Class 1A six-man, 10 a.m. Saturday
Snake River (1S, 10-0) vs. Burlington (1N, 9-1)
Series record: Snake River leads 5-1.
Last meeting: Snake River beat Burlington 68-16 on Sept. 17, 2021, in Burlington.
Last playoff meeting: First meeting.
State championships: Snake River four, most recently in 2021. … Burlington two, most recently in 1994.
Previous title game record: Snake River, 4-1. … Burlington, 2-2.
The path to the title game: Snake River made it look easy, wiping out Hulett 65-6 in the quarterfinals and doing the same to Encampment 71-8 in the semifinals. … Burlington beat up on Farson 56-6 in the quarterfinals and jumped all over Dubois 77-28 in the semifinals.
The case for the Rattlers: After steamrolling their way to an undefeated championship last season, and then returning a bunch of key players from that team, sometimes it’s seemed like all Snake River had to do this year was roll out the football, put on their jerseys and go. It hasn’t been that easy, certainly, but in rolling up 10 victories Snake River has only had one game decided by less than 33 points. Seven victories have come by 45 or more. The Rattlers particularly stand out on defense, where they have given up just 93 points and lead six-man in fewest yards allowed, giving up just 3.9 yards per play (an unheard-of low number in six-man).
The case for the Huskies: After finishing 1-6 last season, Burlington figured to be a much-improved team in 2022. With most of their players coming back, how could they not? Well, the Huskies have been that and more this year, rampaging through the North Conference and avenging their only loss of the season (to Dubois) emphatically last week. They lead six-man in passing and 14 different players have receiving touchdowns this year. And their defense bends but doesn’t break; they give up yards but not points, a good thing when the name of the game is to score more points than the opposition.
The pick: Burlington’s turnaround season has been amazing to watch. The Huskies are absolutely deserving of all the accolades they have received, and will. In any other year, a championship would be Burlington’s destiny. This year, though? Burlington has the misfortune of running up against one of the best six-man teams we’ve seen. Snake River is a talented, experienced group that knows exactly what it needs to do in games like this. … Snake River 54, Burlington 36.
Here are the results of my picks from last week and this season:
Last week: 8-2 (80 percent). This season: 268-41 (87 percent).
We’ve reached the last week of the 2022 season. Give us a hot take: What do you know now that you didn’t in August? Drop some insight on us. Leave a comment here, or hit me up on the Facebook page or on Twitter.
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