It’s long been the case that the strength of Class 3A has been in the West Conference.
The past 12 3A champs have come from the West, and seven of the past eight 3A title games have matched up two West teams.
So far, we’ve seen no indication that 2023 will be the year for such streaks to end.
The East went 3-12 against the West this year, and none of those three victories came against a playoff qualifier — two were against Green River (Lander and Rawlins), one against Jackson (Douglas).
When the playoffs get underway on Friday, the East Conference teams are likely underdogs in all four 3A playoff games. West Conference leaders Star Valley, Cody and Powell — a combined record of 23-4, with three of those four losses to each other — have proven themselves a cut above the rest of the classification. Together, they’re a combined 7-0 this season against the four playoff qualifiers from the East.
And that brings us to Evanston against Riverton, what might be the most interesting playoff game out of the 20 scheduled this week.
Evanston, despite being a No. 4 seed heading up against a No. 1, has every reason to believe it’s the favorite. Most importantly, the Red Devils have already beaten the Wolverines once this season, 34-27 in Week 2 in Evanston. Moreover, Evanston has played competitively in losses to the West’s top three. All of it has led to the Red Devils’ first playoff berth in four seasons, the longest playoff drought broken by any playoff-qualifying team this season.
Meanwhile, Riverton might be the most transformed team in the state from the first half of the season to the second half. After starting 0-4 (against the four West playoff qualifiers, by the way), the Wolverines have since won four of five, including what might have been the biggest win in recent program memory by beating Buffalo 25-14, a game that eventually clinched the top seed in the playoffs for the Wolverines by breaking a three-way first-place tie with the Bison and Douglas.
That said, it’s easy to root for whoever wins this game to be this year’s 3A Cinderella. Both teams are led by a first-year coach who isn’t really a “first-year coach”; Riverton’s Mark Lenhardt has had success as a head coach at both Torrington and Rock Springs, taking them both to state championship games, while Evanston’s Steve Moore has spent two decades on the sidelines with the Red Devils before moving into the top spot heading into this season. Both teams are 4-5 entering this game; it’s simply an odd quirk of the schedule that two of the three teams in the 3A playoffs with losing records ended up facing each other in the first round. And one of these teams will break a long streak without a visit to the semifinals: Riverton hasn’t reached the second round in eight seasons, and for Evanston, the drought has been 15 seasons.
The candle on the Cinderella cake is that Evanston has been the lone team in the West not to benefit from the conference’s dominant run. Across that eight-year stretch of mentioned earlier — the one where in seven of the past eight years, it’s been two West teams playing each other — Evanston is the only one of the West teams that has failed to make it to the championship game.
For now, I like Evanston to win this week.
Truth be told, though, I like whoever wins this game.
As much as I love the Riverton-Evanston game, by far the most interesting 2023 playoff bracket, top to bottom, belongs to Class 2A.
The only predictable game seems to be Wheatland visiting Mountain View; the Bulldogs did that trip in Week 1 and came back as victims of a 38-0 dissection. The other three games, though, look like they could be all-time classics.
With Mountain View surviving as the only undefeated team in Class 2A this season, the remainder of the classification has been an exercise in parity.
The remaining three games give us six teams who are all legitimate title threats: Tongue River (7-2) at Lyman (7-2), Cokeville (5-3) at Torrington (6-3), and Lovell (6-2) at Big Horn (7-1).
Immediately, Big Horn as the one-loss team stands out from the rest. The only problem? Big Horn faces Lovell in the first round, and the Bulldogs were the only team to hang an L on the Rams’ tally this season. Of all the teams and all the possibilities Big Horn could have gotten in the first round, they got the team that’s already shown they can beat them this year.
Meanwhile, Cokeville has sorted its way through some early struggles to emerge as one of the West’s best teams. Replace “Cokeville” with “Torrington,” and “West’s” with “East’s” in that sentence, though, and you have a perfect description of their first-round opponent.
And finally, the Eagles are 7-2, talented and eager for a bit of redemption after losing games to regional rivals. Wait: Are we talking about Tongue River or Lyman? The answer: Yes.
Combined, these matchups should make the 2A bracket an absolute crapshoot, the most intriguing set of first-round games in any of the five brackets.
Now, that said, intrigue DOES exist in other brackets, it’s just not as common:
Thunder Basin and Campbell County meeting in a cross-city rivalry renewal was not necessarily something I had on my 2023 preseason bingo card, but here it is — and I’m thrilled. I’m really interested to see how the aftermath of the Camels’ 49-17 victory in Week 5 manifests a month later, and how much closer this game might be considering that Thunder Basin hasn’t lost since, while the Camels are 1-2 since then. …
Lingle has been living a charmed life. The Doggers have won three consecutive one-point games: 29-28 against Southeast, 31-30 in overtime against Pine Bluffs and 21-20 against Saratoga. According to research I did in 2016, I have reason to believe that this year’s Lingle team is the first Wyoming team to ever win three consecutive one-point games. We’ll see if the run continues against Rocky Mountain in the first round. …
Wind River is hosting the program’s first playoff game since 2009, the longest such streak broken this season. …
Natrona is in the playoffs for the 32nd consecutive year, Cokeville the 31st, Big Horn the 25th, Douglas the 22nd. …
It’s a bit weird, but none of the first-round playoff games are new matchups. Every matchup we have already exists on each team’s series records. Maybe that’s the nature of expanded nonconference schedules and eight-team playoff brackets; eventually, everyone sees everyone.
Picks, where bold means projected winner and non-bold means projected upset-maker:
(8) Kelly Walsh at (1) Sheridan
(5) Thunder Basin at (4) Campbell County
(7) Rock Springs at (2) Cheyenne East
(6) Cheyenne Central at (3) Natrona
(4W) Evanston at (1E) Riverton
(3E) Douglas at (2W) Cody
(4E) Worland at (1W) Star Valley
(3W) Powell at (2E) Buffalo
(4E) Wheatland at (1W) Mountain View
(3W) Cokeville at (2E) Torrington
(4W) Lovell at (1E) Big Horn
(3E) Tongue River at (2W) Lyman
Class 1A nine-man
(4W) Rocky Mountain at (1E) Lingle
(3E) Pine Bluffs at (2W) Big Piney
(4E) Lusk at (1W) Wind River
(3W) Riverside at (2E) Southeast
Class 1A six-man
(4S) Farson at (1N) Burlington
(3N) Meeteetse at (2S) Encampment
(4N) Hulett at (1S) Snake River
(3S) Dubois at (2N) Kaycee
For a full schedule including kickoff times, click here. You can click on “Quarterfinals” at the top of the page to take you directly to this week’s schedule.
Here are the results of my picks from last week and this season:
Last week: 24-6 (80 percent). This season: 237-43 (85 percent).
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