The king is dead.
Long live the king?
Sheridan’s run of consecutive Class 4A championships ended last season at three, as Natrona finally broke through to end the Broncs’ reign atop the big-school classification.
Natrona could be in line for a dynasty of its own. The Mustangs get back one of Wyoming’s most exciting running backs in Dante Wallace as well as a proven quarterback and a handful of other contributors from last season.
The most likely team to stop the Mustangs from forming a new 4A dynasty is Thunder Basin, which returns a bevy of contributors on defense and maybe the state’s most feared aerial pairing.
With a title, or a dynasty, at stake, the margin for error in 4A will be thin this year.
Four questions to answer
Does Natrona start the season as the favorite? As THE favorite? No. As one of them? Yes. The defending champs lost a ton of quality contributors to graduation but return enough offensive firepower to remain a threat to repeat. However, repeating isn’t in Natrona’s nature.
Who else is in the conversation? It’s 4A, so Sheridan, Cheyenne East and Thunder Basin. Of those, Thunder Basin appears to be in the best position to actually make a move at a title. After falling short in the semifinals at home against Sheridan last year, the ‘Bolts have to be motivated — and now, more mentally prepared for the rigors of the playoffs than they were last year.
So, the Big Four again? Yep, the big four again. None of the other six teams in 4A have yet shown they’re ready to be seriously considered as title contenders, or even semifinal contenders. However, Cheyenne Central appears improved, and coaching changes at Kelly Walsh and Rock Springs, as well as at Gillette, could bring shifting fortunes to 4A’s second tier.
What was that about new coaches? In case you missed it, two coaches from the ranks of smaller programs will get their shots to run 4A programs this year. Mark Lenhardt moves from back-to-back title game appearances at 3A Torrington to take on the head coaching job at Rock Springs, while Aaron Makelky moves from 2A Big Piney to Kelly Walsh. They, along with Andrew Rose — a promoted assistant at Gillette — will give 4A a new look this fall.
Four (OK, five) players to watch
Mason Hamilton and Blaine Allen, Thunder Basin. You can’t mention the ‘Bolts’ quarterback without mentioning his favorite receiver. Hamilton was dazzling as a junior, throwing for a state-high 2,592 yards and 31 touchdowns, while Allen led 4A with 805 receiving yards. Together, they give Thunder Basin an aerial pairing no one else can match — not only this year, but maybe ever.
Dante Wallace, Natrona. Wallace was 4A’s top rusher last year in basically every category. He had more carries (235), more yards (1,812) and more touchdowns (23) than any other back in 4A. And he’s back for more as a senior, ready to help Natrona in its repeat attempt.
Garrett Coon, Sheridan. Coon is a bit of a throwback. As a mixture of fullback and linebacker, Coon was one of 4A’s most physical players last season. He’ll likely take on more of a role in the Broncs’ offense, but it’ll be hard for him to do more than he did on defense last year, where he was fourth in 4A in total points and second in the classification with 101 total tackles.
Graedyn Buell, Cheyenne East. It might be easy to overlook Buell, whose sophomore season was cut short due to a broken ankle. But he put up steady stats (1,346 passing yards, 12 touchdowns to just three interceptions, 303 rushing yards) before the injury, and if he can be full speed on his return, he could once again be one of 4A’s most dynamic players.
Four (OK, five) key games
Natrona at Sheridan, and Thunder Basin at Cheyenne East, Sept. 13. The third game of the season will give us the first matchups of 4A’s “Big Four.” It’s likely that all four teams will be 2-0 at this point, and a victory here sets up the winners for the rest of the year — and puts the losers in chase mode.
Sheridan at Thunder Basin, Sept. 20. The rivalry game between the Broncs and the ‘Bolts doesn’t have a name yet. Maybe in its third year — and its fourth iteration, after Sheridan beat Thunder Basin in Gillette in last year’s semifinals — it should get one. I humbly submit the “Basin to Bighorns Bowl,” with the ‘Bolts and Broncs playing in Buffalo with blue jerseys and brown footballs and a halftime show of babies, balloons and banjos. Despite all the “B’s,” expect an A-level performance in this one.
Natrona at Thunder Basin, Oct. 4. On paper, the Mustangs and ‘Bolts have the two most talented teams in 4A this year. This Week 5 game in Gillette will likely set the pace for the second half of the season.
Cheyenne East at Sheridan, Oct. 25. No matter how you look at it, this game between two perennial contenders will have huge playoff implications. The fact that it comes right before the playoffs will only heighten the anticipation.
Predicted order of finish
Thunder Basin; Natrona; Sheridan; Cheyenne East; Rock Springs; Cheyenne Central; Kelly Walsh; Laramie; Gillette; Cheyenne South.
Way-too-early title game score prediction
Thunder Basin 35, Natrona 26. The ‘Bolts’ offensive stars will get a lot of the preseason, and mid-season, and post-season, attention. However, an unheralded but, by 4A standards, experienced defense could be the unit that carries Thunder Basin to its first state championship.
Stadium tour and season preview video
What do you think? Is the Big Four going to keep 4A football boring until the semifinals? Or is 4A actually more complicated than I’m giving it credit for? Leave a comment, or drop a line on Twitter or Facebook.