After 77 seasons without a state championship, Pine Bluffs won its first in 2016.
The Hornets liked winning state titles so much, they did it again in 2017.
Now poised on the edge of a three-peat, Pine Bluffs may face its toughest challenge yet — and it won’t have to leave its conference to do so.
Both Big Horn and Upton-Sundance are trying to challenge Pine Bluffs for the Class 1A 11-man title in what might be the toughest conference in the state to win this fall. And, as always, Cokeville lurks out west.
Four questions to answer
Where’s the strength of Class 1A 11-man? The East Conference. With Big Horn, Upton-Sundance and Pine Bluffs, the three best teams (on paper) in the classification are all in the East Conference. After that, the talent level drops off pretty significantly, so it will be a pretty big surprise if one of these three teams doesn’t come away from 2018 with the first-place trophy in their possession.
Of those three, which one is most likely to win it all? Big Horn. By far. The Rams return all six of their all-state selections and almost the entirety of the rest of their squad. That will make the transition to new head coach Kirk McLaughlin — previously an assistant with the Rams — smoother than usual. While Upton-Sundance and Pine Bluffs return enough players to be favorites in pretty much any other year, this year everyone’s starting the season chasing the Rams.
No love for the West Conference this year? Nope. Cokeville graduated 10 seniors. Wind River is resurgent but may still be a year away from state title contention. Rocky Mountain lost a bunch of key players and has a long history of quarterfinal playoff exits. Don’t be surprised if the East sweeps the West in the first round of the playoffs.
Wait, what? A sweep??? The West Conference may field only four teams this fall, as Saratoga has forfeited its varsity season and Wyoming Indian has question marks about whether it can gather enough players (and many conference foes are playing the Chiefs with their JVs anyway). If that’s the case, the remaining four teams in the West are guaranteed playoff spots… and the seven teams in the East are left fighting for the remaining four. Competition will breed success.
Four players to watch
Kade Eisele, Big Horn. Eisele was a huge part of Big Horn’s success last year, running for 1,768 yards and 25 touchdowns. The workhorse of the Rams’ offense could put up even bigger numbers this year thanks to an experienced offensive line and another year of physical development.
Seth Mullinax, Big Horn. One of the guys blocking for Eisele is Mullinax — and he’s hard to miss. At 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, Mullinax is a nimble and powerful offensive guard. He’s also got the potential to be a terror on defense, but most of the time opposing defensive lines double-team him. Sometimes that doesn’t even work.
Hunter Jeffres, Pine Bluffs. As a junior, Jeffres led Pine Bluffs in defensive points. He was the Hornets’ leader in both solo and assisted tackles. He might draw more attention from opposing offenses this year, which may affect his stats, but he’ll still be a key piece of the Hornets’ three-peat run.
Clayton Louderback, Upton-Sundance. On a senior-laden Patriot team, Louderback the quarterback has the job of keeping the offense chugging. He’s a dual threat, running for 586 yards and throwing for 1,114 more while combining for 24 touchdowns last year. With a veteran line in front of him, he could be even more dangerous this fall.
Four key games
Upton-Sundance at Big Horn, Sept. 21. Big Horn smacked Upton-Sundance 53-13 last year, so you know the Patriots have been looking forward to proving that one was an anomaly. They get their chance early in the season, and if they can somehow upset the Rams in Sheridan County, the Patriots could prove to be the team to beat in the East.
Big Horn at Pine Bluffs, Sept. 28. Obviously, this is a rematch of last year’s Class 1A 11-man title game. But more than that, this game is likely to be a key piece of the East Conference championship race this fall. This game is just as much present as it is past.
Wind River at Rocky Mountain, Oct. 12. If either the Cougars or Grizzlies want to challenge Cokeville for West Conference supremacy, they’ve got to get past each other first. For Wind River, this could be huge, with the Cougars’ game with Cokeville looming in Week 8 — if they can get past this one first.
Pine Bluffs at Upton-Sundance, Oct. 12. When the preseason top three are all in the same conference, it makes sense that each one of their meetings will be huge. This Week 7 contest is likely to play a huge part in determining the East Conference champion, playoff hosting duties and more.
Predicted order of finish
East Conference: Big Horn; Upton-Sundance; Pine Bluffs; Wright; Tongue River; Lusk; Southeast.
West Conference: Cokeville; Wind River; Rocky Mountain; Shoshoni; Wyoming Indian. (Saratoga will not field a varsity-level team this season.)
Way-too-early title game score prediction
Big Horn 34, Upton-Sundance 26. The Rams start the season head and shoulders above the rest of the 1A 11-man field. Whether U-S, or Pine Bluffs, or Cokeville, does enough to catch the Rams this season will be the huge question of the season.
What do you think? Whose turn is it to finish atop the 1A 11-man mountain? Leave a comment with your thoughts on the 1A 11-man scene this fall and let’s figure it out together.
Next Thursday: Class 2A.