It’s tradition ’round these parts to start looking ahead to next season as soon as the last one ends. The cycle never ends. With that in mind, despite being eight months away from the first practice and nearly nine months away from the first game, now seems to be a good time to figure out which teams may be the best entering 2024.
And, yes, it’s too soon to do this. But that’s part of the fun. When I did this last year, I got two eventual champions right, and two other champions were ranked second. And I whiffed on one (coughTorringtoncough). That’s the fun, though — as expectations change, as players move or leave or return and as coaches change, so will expectations. The preseason rankings in August may look quite different. For now, though, here’s who I have as my top five teams in each class:
1. Sheridan: Normally, I absolutely despise it when someone pulls out the cliche of “they’re No. 1 until someone beats them” to describe who should be ranked first in a preseason poll. Yet here I am. Because with three straight titles and 31 consecutive victories behind them, and a lack of returning talent elsewhere in 4A, I think the Broncs — despite just one returning first-team all-conference player, that being kicker/punter Ty Gilbertson — deserve that respect.
2. Campbell County: Straight up, no other team in 4A returns as much talent as the Camels do. With five returning first-team all-conference players, a mark three better than any other squad, this could be Campbell County’s finest season in years.
3. Thunder Basin: Cort Catlin and Logan Mendoza are two of just four returning first-team all-staters across the entirety of Class 4A, and they’re both with the ‘Bolts this fall. That’s a good place to start for a team that’s a consistent contender.
4. Cheyenne East: In another case of respect for a program over respect for returning numbers, the Thunderbirds return only one first-team all-conference player (senior lineman Jesse Kirkbride) but have tons of program momentum.
5. Natrona: The Mustangs have two first-team all-conference players back in seniors Rogan Potter and Tucker Sides. Normally, that wouldn’t be enough to be an immediate contender, but in 2024, where all bets are off, they should help make NC a title threat.
Wild card: Cheyenne Central. The Indians also return a pair of first-team all-conference players in seniors Brycen Bailey and Tate Berry. Gain a little confidence early in the season, and Central could be one of 4A’s toughest teams. (Side note: 4A should have a lot more parity this fall…)
1. Star Valley: How original, I know. But the Braves return six all-state selections from last year’s title team, including senior quarterback Smith McClure, and should be the prohibitive favorites entering 2024.
2. Cody: How original, again. But the Broncs, last year’s runners-up, like Star Valley return six first-team all-state selections, including senior quarterback Maddax Ball. As frustrating as a Cody-Star Valley title game might seem to every other 3A team, you can’t deny what both these programs have accomplished over the past decade. Everyone else is chasing these two.
3. Powell: It’s a wide gulf between Star Valley and Cody and the rest of 3A this year — combined, the remaining 10 teams in 3A have just seven all-staters returning, where Cody and Star Valley have six each. But Powell, with its three all-staters in senior linemen Doug Bettger and Dusty Carter and linebacker Keona Wisnewski, are the biggest threat to the hierarchy.
4. Buffalo: After the top three, it’s a crapshoot, but Buffalo’s three returning all-conference selections, led by all-state senior lineman Hayden Jawors, is the most among 3A’s returners.
5. Douglas: If linebackers are the core of a defense, then the Bearcats will be set. All-stater Carter Archuleta and all-conference pick Cash Tillard, both seniors, will help Douglas reload.
Wild cards: Torrington, Riverton and Evanston. Yes, it’s a cop-out to pick three wild card teams, but so what? Torrington moves up to 3A after winning the 2A title last year, its first title since 1990, and returns enough talent to be immediately competitive. Meanwhile, Riverton and Evanston both had resurgent seasons last year and could be in the mix again if they get development deep on the roster.
1. Big Horn: The Rams have two big things going for them. First, they’ve been to Laramie each of the past two years, coming up just short of a title last year and winning it all in 2022. Second, they’re the only team in 2A this year that has more than one returning all-state choice, those being seniors Avon Barney and Kolby Butler.
2. Mountain View: People tend to overlook just how dominant Mountain View was in last year’s regular season, winning every conference game except one by double digits — and even that one was by eight. With three all-conference players back, led by junior all-state quarterback Justus Platts, the Buffalos should be right back in the title conversation.
3. Worland: The Warriors, in returning four of their five all-conference selections (including all-state lineman Brody Thiel), were already going to be a resurgent team in 2024. Moving from 3A to 2A immediately makes them a title threat in a classification where depth is at a premium, but they’ll have to adjust to a new coach.
4. Cokeville: The Panthers have four returning all-conference players, all seniors, tied with Big Horn and Worland for the most in 2A. Depth is always a concern for 2A’s smallest school, but the Panthers handle it every season. They’ll be right there to contend.
5. (tie) Lyman and Lovell: Yes, it’s a cop-out to pick two teams in the No. 5 spot, but so what? Both return a pair of all-conference players, and all-staters Davin Crosby (Lovell) and Max Gregory (Lyman) should help make each one competitive. Oh, and yes, the West is absolutely loaded this season.
Wild card: Newcastle. Looking for a team on the rise? Check out the Dogies, whose three all-conference returners is second only to Big Horn in the East. Trouble is, none of those three will be seniors in 2024.
Class 1A nine-man
1. Lingle: Maybe the Doggers just needed some more experience to break through. After all, with all four of their all-state choices and six of their eight all-conference choices — both tops in 1A nine-man — coming back this year, it makes sense to see the Doggers on top of a preseason list like this.
2. Pine Bluffs: The Hornets should again be a contender thanks to four returning all-conference choices and all-state senior Shawn Shmidl leading the way.
3. Rocky Mountain: Not many teams return the experience the Grizzlies do, who had to play a lot of inexperienced players last year due to graduation losses. That should pay off this year, with five all-conference choices and senior all-stater Tucker Jackson fronting the effort.
4. Lusk: The Tigers get back a pair of all-state picks (senior Jackson Smith and sophomore Raynce Brott) and all four of their all-conference players. Not a bad place to start.
5. Southeast: The Cyclones will have a new coach for the first time this century, but the cupboard isn’t bare as all-staters Ayden Desmond and T.J. Moats lead a team that’s got enough returning to contend with nine-man’s best.
Wild cards: Big Piney and Wind River. Yes, neither one of last year’s championship-game teams are listed here. That’s with good reason. Combined, they return just two all-state/all-conference players (one apiece) and will have to get young players to step up in a hurry to return to their lofty heights of 2023.
Class 1A six-man
1. Burlington: Here’s a number for you: Burlington returns four all-state selections this year, all seniors. Combined, all the other teams in six-man have three. The defending champs are in good shape for a repeat.
2. Snake River: The Rattlers should be in great shape to challenge for a title, as well. Seniors Bridger Cozzens and Mason Jones were all-state picks, and the program — despite losing in the six-man championship — still has great momentum.
3. Riverside: All-state senior Curtis Strohschein leads a Rebel team that returns three all-conference players from its nine-man team last year. As they move to six-man this year, the Rebels should be immediate title contenders.
4. Encampment: After six-man’s top three, no other team returns even a single all-state selection. Encampment, though, with senior all-conference picks Tyrel Brown and Gunner Henrie, looks like on paper to be the best of the rest.
5. Kaycee: The Buckaroos consistently play beyond their numbers, and in a muddled group of potential contenders, Kaycee could be the best of the bunch despite a lack of depth.
Wild cards: Meeteetse and Hanna. Both the Longhorns and Miners will be young teams in 2024, but those young cores bode well for the future — and potentially the present.
Who do you have as your potential champs, or your potential teams that everyone might be overlooking? Leave a comment and let me know what you’re thinking, way too soon ahead of the 2024 season.