Four questions to answer

Can we expect the usual suspects again in 4A this year? Yes, but parity is slowly creeping its way in. It’s Sheridan, Cheyenne East and Natrona, per usual, who are among the favorites. However, Cheyenne Central has reached the semifinals twice in the past four years, and Thunder Basin is eager to re-establish itself as a title threat after two consecutive quarterfinal exits. Meanwhile, both Rock Springs and Campbell County have been mentioned as programs who could surprise depending on how they find their footing with new head coaches.

Where does defending champ Sheridan have an advantage? The offensive line. Two of Sheridan’s closest competitors, East and Natrona, will have all-new starters on the line; Sheridan, meanwhile, returns beaucoup experience up front, including all-stater Alex Haswell. Thunder Basin is the only other 4A team that returns linemen with comparable experience, and even there the Broncs still have the edge.

Is this the year of the quarterback in 4A? Potentially, but it’ll also have to be the year of the pass-catcher. The five players who had the most passing yards per game in Class 4A all return — Thunder Basin’s Alonso Aguilar, Cheyenne East’s Cam Hayes, Campbell County’s Mason Drube, Rock Springs’ Michael Faigl and Laramie’s Ben Malone. All of them are seniors except for Drube, a junior. The challenge across the board will be bringing less experienced receivers up to speed; each team except for Rock Springs lost, at minimum, its top receiver from 2022.

What else is it the year of? The tackler. Of the top eight players in defensive points last season, six of them are back — Campbell County’s Levi Palmer, Sheridan’s Dane Steel and Alex Haswell, Cheyenne East’s Colby Olson and Kolbe Dierks and Cheyenne South’s Damien Pino. (Kelly Walsh’s Kadon Boyce would have also made the list, but KW coach Aaron Makelky said Boyce transferred away this summer, and it’s not clear at this point who Boyce will play for this fall.)

Preseason class MVP

Drew Jackson, Cheyenne East. The East Conference offensive player of the year in 2022, Jackson has to be accounted for on every play no matter what side of the ball he’s on. He ran for 1,017 yards and 11 touchdowns and also had 601 receiving yards and six more TDs; he’s East’s leading returner in both rushing and receiving. Defensively, he was sixth for the T-Birds with 55.5 tackles and led East with five interceptions.

Preseason class breakout player

Noah Sides, Natrona. Technically, Sides’ breakout season came last year, when he led Natrona’s defense with 76.5 tackles. As Natrona’s only returning first-team all-conference selection, though, Sides’ presence on an experienced Mustang defense will be accentuated as a senior leader, and his productivity could reach even greater heights this fall because of that.

Other players to watch

Cam Hayes, Cheyenne East. One of Wyoming’s most complete quarterbacks entering 2023, Hayes can do it all. He’s got the accuracy, completing 216 passes on 309 attempts last year; he’s got the ability to move the ball, throwing for 2,867 yards and running for 621 more; he’s got the nose for the end zone, running for seven TDs and throwing for 40. You can’t ask for much more from a quarterback — and he still has his senior season to go.

Dane Steel, Sheridan. The reigning West Conference defensive player of the year, Steel led the Broncs with 103.5 tackles last season; he notched 10 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and two interceptions. He was nearly as busy on offense, reeling in 22 catches for 390 yards and leading the Broncs with six receiving touchdowns.

Alex Haswell, Sheridan. The Bronc lineman was doing a man’s job as a junior, controlling the Broncs’ defense up front — and he put up some big numbers in doing so. His 15.6 defensive points per game ranked him fifth among all players in Class 4A. He finished with 13 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks to lead 4A in both categories, and added two fumble recoveries, four pass deflections and a blocked kick to all that.

Levi Palmer, Campbell County. It’s hard to talk defense in Class 4A without talking about Palmer, the only player in the classification last year to average more than 10 tackles per game. Palmer’s 10.4 tackles per game — 104 over 10 games — led 4A last year. He also had five tackles for loss, two sacks and three interceptions to go with his seemingly omnipresent tackling abilities.

Four key games

Cheyenne Central at Natrona, Sept. 8. Both the Indians and Mustangs have been on the edge of breakthroughs the past couple years, but neither one has players who knows what it feels like to be in a championship game. The frustrating part for both is that to make that jump, they’ll have to go through the other.

Thunder Basin at Cheyenne East, Sept. 8. After two consecutive quarterfinal playoff exits, the ‘Bolts are eager to prove they belong in the championship conversation. Well… what better opportunity to do so than on the road against the Thunderbirds early in the season? The precedent exists: The ‘Bolts have won their last two regular-season games on the road at East.

Sheridan at Cheyenne East, Sept. 29. The consensus top two teams in Class 4A this year meet in Week 5 in the Capital City. Whether they’ll still be 1-2 by this time remains to be seen, but it will still represent a rematch of last year’s title game.

Natrona at Sheridan, Oct. 13. In a rivalry that speaks for itself, the annual game between the Mustangs and Broncs has typically been key in deciding playoff seeding and, eventually, home-field advantage in the playoffs. This Week 7 matchup figures to have similarly high stakes this year, but that’s nothing new for either program.

Predicted order of finish

Cheyenne East; Sheridan; Natrona; Cheyenne Central; Thunder Basin; Rock Springs; Campbell County; Kelly Walsh; Laramie; Cheyenne South.

Way-too-early title game score prediction

Cheyenne East 40, Sheridan 32. The Thunderbirds’ talent on offense should be enough to make other defenses nervous, and that’ll draw a lot of early attention, but East’s defense is also top-notch. They’ll start the season with the edge, but they’ll have to improve to keep it.

Is this East’s year, or will someone else bring some surprises to 4A this season? Leave a comment, or drop a line on Twitter or Facebook.


One Thought on “Class 4A season preview: The year of the quarterback — and of those who’d tackle them

  1. Pingback: Week 0 picks: 4A’s fun starts a week early – THE HQ — The Wyoming high school football blog

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