Class 4A football the past few years has had an aura of familiarity.
That familiarity is both frustrating and interesting — frustrating in the regular season and quarterfinals, where ideas like parity, surprise and intrigue are laughable pipe dreams, and interesting in the final two rounds of the playoffs, where we see four teams battle it out for supremacy in back-to-back weekends that represent the best high school football the state has to offer.
The separation between wanna-bes and already-ares has never been clearer.
And that’s what makes Rock Springs’ rise to prominence so darn interesting coming into 2016.
Four questions to answer
The Big Four again? Yes, the Big Four again. A state championship game involving anyone but Cheyenne East, Sheridan, Gillette or Natrona seems unlikely. The same four teams have occupied the 4A semifinals every season since 2010, and although they’ll be challenged this year, these four programs aren’t going anywhere.
Which one of the Big Four has the best chance of winning it all? Gillette. In a year where Class 4A is somewhat turbulent due to the number of seniors who graduated, the Camels’ two returning all-state selections is tied for the most in 4A. Beyond that, the Camels return four all-conference players, a number second only to Cheyenne East. And, maybe most importantly, Gillette is fired up to avenge last year’s title-game loss, a misstep that cost it an unbeaten season and state title.
Who has the best chance of ruining 4A’s status quo? Rock Springs. The Tigers finished one point away from a trip to the semifinals last year — falling 14-13 to Cheyenne East — and showed some tremendous improvement from 2014 to 2015. If that improvement continues, Rock Springs could be a title contender. And it helps that the team returns one of the best running backs in the state in Matt Fowler.
Will a new coach bring success to Cheyenne South? It will be tough. Dan Gallas takes over at South after a successful career in Colorado. The Bison, who have won three games in five varsity seasons and went winless in 2015, have had time to build a program; Gallas’ responsibility will be to move from “patience” to “progress.”
Four players to watch
Lane Tucker, Gillette. The most college-ready player in the state might be the lineman from Gillette. He drew several Division I scholarship offers before committing to North Dakota State this summer. Tucker’s responsibilities will be diverse — he was an all-state selection on both the offensive and defensive lines last season — but he will likely be up for the challenge.
Matt Fowler, Rock Springs. Fowler ran for 1,293 yards last season, more than any other player in Class 4A. He’s the leading returning rusher in the classification by a wide margin. And he’s part of an offense that focuses on the run. As good as last year was, this year might top it.
Madden Pikula, Gillette. Just in case you forgot, the Gillette offense was record-setting last year — the Camels scored more points in a season than any other team in state history. Pikula was a big part of that; he notched 1,014 receiving yards, more than any other player in Wyoming. He’ll be breaking in a new quarterback this fall — or he might be the quarterback himself — but his role will be critical to Gillette’s success.
Jacob Hallam, Sheridan. Hallam is the only one of Sheridan’s seven all-state players from 2015 to return this fall. But he was an all-state selection on both the offensive and defensive line, and his presence in the middle of the action will help anchor the Broncs, giving the defending champions experience in a critical place on the field.
Four key games
Cheyenne East at Rock Springs, Aug. 26. You think the Tigers haven’t had the season opener circled on their calendars all offseason? The team that booted them from the playoffs is the same team they’ll see in Week 0 — and it’s Rock Springs’ perfect chance to prove it belongs in the mix.
Natrona at Gillette, Sept. 16. The Mustangs and Camels have a well-documented rivalry. As usual, this one will be big. The Camels have the advantage in both returning firepower and home field, but games between these two teams rarely tilt decisively one way or another.
Gillette at Sheridan, Sept. 30. This rivalry was already intense enough. This time, though, the two teams are staging not only the Energy Bowl, they’re also staging the rematch of last year’s Class 4A title game. Intense barely describes what this one will be like.
Cheyenne East at Cheyenne Central, Sept. 30. One of the forgotten oddities of the 2015 season is the Indians’ 20-17 victory against the Thunderbirds, Central’s first over East since 2010. East recovered from that loss; Central never took advantage of that victory.
Predicted order of finish
Gillette; Sheridan; Rock Springs; Cheyenne East; Natrona; Laramie; Evanston; Kelly Walsh; Cheyenne Central; Cheyenne South.
Way-too-early title game score prediction
Gillette 34, Sheridan 28. The Camels win the title they thought they’d get last year as one last sendoff to the days of one high school in Gillette. And then we spend all offseason wondering how much the addition of Thunder Basin High School will affect the Camels’ repeat bid.
Cheesy 80s pop song that should play over the loudspeakers at War Memorial Stadium after this classification’s title game
Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper. Because time after time, we’re used to seeing the same group of four teams playing at the War.
Alternate choice: Cool Change by the Little River Band. If someone who’s not one of the Big Four wins it all, that’d be a cool change — as long as you’re not among the Big Four.
What do you think? Is another Camels-Broncs title game in the making? Is this the year Rock Springs comes in and disrupts the Big Four’s reign? Will some darkhorse surprise us all? Let me hear your thoughts on big-school football for the year!
(And, yes, I know, “Cool Change” was released in 1979. It was on the year-end chart for 1980. Whatever. LRB rules.)