Prior to last season, Star Valley last won a state football championship in 1996. Yet, after 19 years without a title, the Braves will be the odds-on favorite to win a second consecutive Class 3A title — even after losing their coach and five all-state players.

However, the Braves’ quest for a repeat championship has plenty of roadblocks, including several in their own conference. After all, the West Conference has the 2015 champs (Star Valley), the 2014 champs (Cody), the 2015 runner-up (Green River) and, lest we forget, the team that won the conference championship a year ago (Jackson).

Meanwhile, a team from the East with a losing record a year ago might be the best team in the classification this year.

Yep, just another year in the crazy mixed-up world of Class 3A football.

Four questions to answer

Can Star Valley defend its title even after losing its head coach? Yes. Although Chris Howell is gone to Utah, his replacement, McKay Young, has been with the program for several years and has already proven himself a capable head coach, going 25-6 at Malad High in Idaho before coming to Afton. The Braves’ transition should be smooth.

Does that mean Star Valley is the favorite to win the 3A title? Again: Yes. The Braves return enough talent — fronted by returning all-state selections Kellen Hansen, Collin McGinley and McCabe Smith — to make another successful run at a 3A championship. But that also means the Braves will be everyone’s target all season long.

Who’s most likely to challenge the Braves for the throne? Douglas. Don’t let the Bearcats’ 3-6 record from 2015 deceive you. This team is loaded for 2016. The Bearcats return all three of their all-state choices and lost little to graduation. Watch out.

Anyone else in the mix? Definitely. Jackson, Torrington, Green River, Riverton and Buffalo have all been mentioned by 3A coaches as having what it takes to compete for a title. Green River in particular, thanks to its run to the title game with a junior-heavy squad in 2015, has the attention of 3A coaches across the state.

Four players to watch

Logan Harris, Torrington. In short, Harris is one of the state’s top linemen. A Casper Star-Tribune Super 25 first team pick as a junior, Harris was second for the Trailblazers in defensive points last year and notched a Class 3A-best 14 tackles for loss. He’s just as valuable on offense.

Blake Waite, Green River. Last year’s 3A West Defensive Player of the Year was the classification leader in defensive points last year. He was everywhere — 64 solo tackles and 69 assisted tackles proves that. As offenses turn their attention to him, his numbers may dip, but his presence will help open up opportunities for teammates.

T.J. Abraham, Powell. Not many players lead their teams in rushing, tackling, punt and kick returns and scoring in the same season. Usually, when they do, they’re seniors. Abraham did that for the Panthers as a junior. He’ll be the focus not only for the Panthers, but for every single one of the Panthers’ opponents this fall, too.

McCabe Smith, Star Valley. Smith, who was also a Casper Star-Tribune Super 25 first-team selection last year, leads the Braves’ charge for a repeat title. A valuable piece of both the offensive and defensive lines, Smith led the Braves with 11 tackles for loss and four sacks a year ago.

Four key games

Star Valley at Douglas, Sept. 16. The most intriguing nonconference game pits the defending champs on the road against a team in Douglas that returns almost every key player from a year ago. The distance it has to travel, and the talent awaiting at the end of that trip, makes this game a double-edged sword for Star Valley.

Torrington at Riverton, Sept. 23. It would be easy to look at both the Trailblazers and the Wolverines and say they’re rebuilding. Far from it. Both have enough talent to compete for the East Conference title — and more — and the conference opener will be telling for both programs.

Jackson at Green River, Sept. 30. Jackson certainly hasn’t forgotten how last season ended. The Broncs will be fired up for this rematch against the Wolves in a game that may be key in deciding home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Green River at Star Valley, Oct. 7. The regular-season game between these two last season came down to the final play. The state championship game rematch wasn’t as thrilling. Even so, both teams will be on edge for this one, especially given their recent history.

Predicted order of finish

East Conference: Douglas, Riverton, Torrington, Buffalo, Rawlins, Lander. West Conference: Star Valley, Green River, Jackson, Powell, Cody, Worland.

Preseason top five: Star Valley, Douglas, Green River, Riverton, Jackson.

Way-too-early title game score prediction

Star Valley 20, Douglas 14. The Braves will start the season as the 3A favorites, but not by much. They’ll need to prove themselves week in and week out. The fact that their coach has experience in the Star Valley system should make the transition easier than a coaching transition normally is — and that gives the Braves the early edge in 3A.

Cheesy 80s pop song that should play over the loudspeakers at War Memorial Stadium after this classification’s title game

Waiting for a Star to Fall by Boy Meets Girl. I think everyone in 3A is waiting for a “Star” to fall…

The last five 3A champions, as well as both of last year’s title-game participants, were West Conference teams. Is this the year an East Conference team shakes things up? Who’s everyone overlooking? How do you see 3A coming together this fall? Leave a comment and let us know!

Next Thursday: Class 4A.


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