For five seasons, Class 4A has been controlled by the big four. Cheyenne East, Natrona, Sheridan and Gillette have advanced to 4A’s semifinal round five years in a row, with nary a challenge from the classification’s other six schools.
The buildup to 2015 has shown the usual suspects will likely meet each other for a sixth consecutive year in the semifinals, and almost certainly one of those four schools will win the title.
Just don’t tell that to the other six. Severe graduation losses in the big four, coupled with continued growth among 4A’s lower tier, shows 2015 might be the year the gap finally closes between 4A’s elite programs and its also-rans.
Four questions to answer
Is it still the big four in charge? For now, yes. Cheyenne East, Natrona, Sheridan and Gillette have had the final four playoff spots in Class 4A on lockdown since 2010, an unprecedented streak of success for a foursome of teams. However, enough uncertainty surrounds the top of the classification to make a surprise semifinalist — like maybe Cheyenne South, Cheyenne Central or Kelly Walsh — a possibility.
So of those big four, who’s the favorite? Right now on paper, it’s Sheridan. Of the top four 4A teams, the Broncs lost the fewest players. Experience is always key in Class 4A, and Sheridan has more of it than any other team.
Which of the other six schools have the best chance to break up the top four’s superiority? For the first time, Cheyenne South. The Bison return an experienced quarterback in Austin Barker, a solid running back in Marquez Jefferson and a defense that returns four of its top five tacklers. With that much talent back, South will likely earn its first playoff berth in school history.
Isn’t Natrona still in the mix? Of course. But the defending state champs lost more to graduation than any other team in the state. The Mustangs return just two of their top 22 tacklers from last year and just one of their 12 all-state selections. Those losses leave NC in a precarious situation — trying to reload with players who have basically no varsity experience.
Four players to watch
Quinn Happold, Cheyenne East. The only 4A player who’s a returning all-state selection at two positions (offensive and defensive line), Happold will be an important piece of the T-Birds’ restructuring process this season. It all starts up front.
Austin Barker, Cheyenne South. How Barker — who threw for a 4A-best 197 yards per game — missed out on all-state honors last year is beyond me. But he’s back for his senior season, and he could be the one who leads South to its first playoff berth in program history.
Zach Taylor, Gillette. A two-time all-state selection and Casper Star-Tribune Super 25 first team selection at linebacker last year, Taylor is also Gillette’s leading returning rusher. Already a legit defensive star, Taylor may be called on to do more on the offensive side this year, too.
Dontae Crow, Sheridan. Although Crow didn’t show up on the all-state list last year, every coach in the state knows who he is. After all, he posted more than 20 yards per catch as Sheridan’s top receiver last year and led Sheridan with six pass breakups. He’s an important, explosive player in what may be Sheridan’s breakthrough year.
Four key games
Cheyenne East at Natrona, Sept. 4. Of 4A’s top four, the Thunderbirds and the Mustangs have the most questions surrounding them entering the fall. The 4A hierarchy could be established quickly with this Week 1 contest.
Cheyenne Central at Cheyenne South, Sept. 4. Both the Indians and the Bison could be poised for breakout seasons in 2015. This contest will help establish which team is a legit threat to 4A’s top four and which one is simply along for the ride.
Sheridan at Gillette, Oct. 2. The Energy Bowl always ranks high as a key 4A game, but in a year where the Broncs and Camels return more players than most of their competitors, this game could be for the top seed in the playoffs.
Natrona at Sheridan, Oct. 16. Natrona has won six straight against Sheridan. For the Broncs to rise to the level of 4A favorite, they’ll have to be able to overcome the Mustangs in Week 7. At least they get this one at home….
Predicted order of finish
Sheridan, Gillette, Natrona, Cheyenne East, Cheyenne South, Cheyenne Central, Kelly Walsh, Evanston, Laramie, Rock Springs.
Way-too-early title game score prediction
Sheridan 30, Gillette 20. On paper, the Broncs have more returning firepower than any other team in Class 4A. If they can put it together like they’re capable, they’ll be the team to beat.
Do you agree? Is Sheridan actually the team to beat? Who has the best chance of winning it all? Which team has the best chance of knocking off one of the “big four” in the playoffs? Post your thoughts and let’s talk 4A.