Class 1A 11-man has a rare preseason conundrum: Two defending state champions are in the same classification. With last year’s 2A champion, Big Horn, moving into 1A 11-man, the classification figures to be as competitive and as deep as ever.
Last year’s 1A 11-man champion, Pine Bluffs, still retains a strong squad, and Cokeville and Upton-Sundance also return players with enough capability of making a run at a title. And several other programs have the potential to pull upsets and go on deep playoff runs if things come together.
For now, though, all eyes are on the new guys from up north.
Four questions to answer
How will Big Horn’s entry into 1A 11-man change the classification? Immensely. Let’s be clear about it: The biggest storyline in 1A 11-man football in 2017 is Big Horn. The defending Class 2A champs got bumped down to Class 1A 11-man thanks to a cascading series of classification rearrangements prompted by the opening of Thunder Basin High in Gillette. Now, one of the most consistent and successful 2A programs moves from being the smallest to the biggest school in its class, shaking up the entire classification hierarchy in the process.
Who’s Big Horn’s biggest challenger? Cokeville. The Panthers return four all-state choices, more than any other program in 1A 11-man. Moreover, the Panthers haven’t won a playoff game in two seasons — something that hasn’t happened to a Todd Dayton-coached team since 1981-82 — and are motivated to return to their spot atop 1A 11-man.
Anyone else out there who could be a challenger? Pine Bluffs and Upton-Sundance. The Hornets are the defending state champions and return three all-state choices, so they have to be considered one of 1A 11-man’s favorites, as well. And it’s easy to forget about Upton-Sundance, but the Patriots were East Conference champs last year and return one of 1A 11-man’s most dynamic running backs in Dawson Butts.
Is anyone else in the discussion for a state title? Short answer, no. Combined, Big Horn, Cokeville and Pine Bluffs have 10 returning all-state players; the other 10 programs have a combined five. The talent is pooled in specific places in 1A 11-man this fall, making the race for a state title appear to be a fairly predictable one.
Four players to watch
Haize Fornstrom, Pine Bluffs. A two-time all-state selection, Fornstrom helped lead Pine Bluffs to the 1A 11-man title last year by throwing for 1,050 yards and running for 231 more. A four-year starter, the Hornets’ efforts at a repeat title will fall in large part on his shoulders.
Dawson Butts, Upton-Sundance. Another two-time all-state selection, Butts ran for 1,048 yards last year — a total that was actually down from the 1,202 yards he ran for as a sophomore. Now a senior, Butts could terrorize 1A 11-man defenses and put the Patriots in position to contend for another state title.
Rick Nate, Cokeville. On a Cokeville team that has tremendous diversity in talent, Nate is hard to overlook. He led the Panthers with 871 rushing yards last year and was also the Panthers’ No. 2 tackler, sharing the team lead with 18 solo tackles.
Seth Mullinax, Big Horn. One of three juniors who were all-state selections for the Rams as sophomores last year, Mullinax stands out for his work on defense. He’s the Rams’ leading returning tackler after finishing third on the team last year in defensive points, while he helps lead an offensive line rich in talent and experience.
Four key games
Pine Bluffs at Big Horn, Sept. 15. It’s not often that we get to see two defending state champions play each other during the regular season. However, that’s what we’ll get in Week 3 when last year’s 1A 11-man champs go north to play last year’s 2A champs in what is now a budding East Conference rivalry. The two schools have only played each other once before, in the 2003 playoffs, so familiarity flies out the window.
Cokeville at Rocky Mountain, Sept. 22. The Panthers’ West Conference opener is a doozy — they’re facing a Grizzly team that’s no longer in awe of them. Rocky beat Cokeville for the first time in school history last year, and if the Panthers want to regain their traditional stranglehold on the West, they’ll have to do so in Cowley in the first league game of the year.
Tongue River at Big Horn, Oct. 20. The Thunder Bowl is back after a three-year absence. TR is coming off back-to-back runner-up finishes at state; Big Horn has had three title-game trips in four years. The rivalry’s revival is welcome, especially given both programs’ recent success.
Upton-Sundance at Pine Bluffs, Oct. 20. Revenge? By the time this game rolls around, 2016 will be a faded memory, but you can bet right now that the Patriots have this one highlighted on their schedules. The Hornets, after all, were the ones who ended the Patriots’ perfect season in last year’s semifinals.
Predicted order of finish
East Conference: Big Horn, Pine Bluffs, Upton-Sundance, Tongue River, Southeast, Wright, Lusk.
West Conference: Cokeville, Rocky Mountain, Shoshoni, Saratoga, Wind River, Wyoming Indian.
Way-too-early title game score prediction
Cokeville 22, Big Horn 14. History tells us that when Cokeville has a team that has this many seniors, watch out. The experience the Panthers have is unrivaled in 1A 11-man this year, making them the odds-on favorite to win it all — if they can hold off all the challengers from the East.
What do you think? Is Big Horn’s entry into the classification as much of a game-changer as I think? Is Pine Bluffs capable of a repeat? Is Upton-Sundance being overlooked? Let’s talk 1A 11-man!
Next week: Class 2A.