Note: This post was updated at 6:51 p.m. MDT Aug. 18 to reflect the number of juniors who have won the Wyoming Gatorade football player of the year award. Tevis Bartlett of Cheyenne East won it as a junior in 2013-14.
The old cliche that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is about as an accurate as a descriptor as exists for Class 4A football.
In 2021, for the first time since 2009 and Cheyenne Central, someone other than the “Big Four” reached the 4A championship game. Rock Springs’ appearance was yet another death knell to the run that Cheyenne East, Natrona, Sheridan and Campbell County/Thunder Basin had on big-school football since 2010.
Still, Sheridan won the title — and the Broncs are one of only three 4A schools, along with Natrona and East, who have won any kind of football championship since 2009.
Entering 2022, those three schools are atop basically every 4A coach’s list of preseason favorites, and with good reason.
In short, East, Natrona and Sheridan bring back the most experienced and the most talented players.
Things have changed, though, and he days of the “Big Four” dominating a regular-season schedule might indeed be gone. However, some things have stayed the same, and despite Rock Springs’ best effort last year, a “Non-Big Six” championship, something that hasn’t been accomplished since Cheyenne Central’s memorable playoff title run in 2005, remains out of reach.
Four questions to answer
Let’s not mess around — who’s gonna win it all this year? Ask again later. The three favorites seem pretty clear, though, and it’s Sheridan, Cheyenne East and Natrona. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the only three programs that have won 4A titles since 2009. The good thing for 4A is that most of the seven teams not listed in that group are capable of beating those top three.
Why those three ahead of the others? Experience, mostly. Sheridan gained a lot of love as the defending champion and has enough players returning with playing time to start near the top. East, though, might return more experience than any other 4A team in the state. Meanwhile, Natrona is loaded with seniors, and the Mustangs typically do well when that’s the case.
And the others — are they in the conversation at all? Some are. In particular, Thunder Basin, Rock Springs and Cheyenne Central are all legit threats. However, Thunder Basin and Rock Springs will both rely on young and untested players, while Central will have the experience but is coming off a messy 2-8 season. Beyond that, Campbell County and Kelly Walsh had big graduation losses (although the Camels in particular got a lot of preseason love from the 4A coaches), and Laramie and Cheyenne South are still building their programs to be consistently competitive.
What else should we watch for this season? A potential offensive explosion. Of the 10 returning first-team all-state players in Class 4A, eight of them are returning to spots on offense. The only two returning first-team all-state selections on defense are Kelly Walsh safety Erich Hulshizer and Cheyenne East linebacker Ethan Brinkman. Inexperience on defense across the state might help give offenses a boost, at least early in the season.
Preseason class MVP
Colson Coon, Sheridan. This choice is as much of a no-brainer as there can be. Only the second junior who’s ever won Wyoming’s Gatorade Player of the Year award is back for the defending state champions, and he got mentioned by name by several opposing coaches — without prompting — as the player that all opposing teams know they need to stop. But knowing and doing are two separate things, and Coon has already proven he can take the focus of opposing teams and still generate huge games.
Preseason class breakout player
Michael Faigl, Rock Springs. Tiger coach Mark Lenhardt has high hopes, and high expectations, for his new starting quarterback. Stepping under center for a program that just made its first trip to a state championship game in almost two decades will be tough, but the junior lefty could grow into one of the best in 4A, and this year could be the year he capitalizes on that potential.
Other players to watch
Garet Schlabs, Drew Jackson and Dom Kaszas, Cheyenne East. It’s true — Kaszas, Sheridan’s all-state receiver, transferred to East during the summer, bolstering what was probably already 4A’s top receiving corps. Schlabs was 4A’s top receiver last year with 71 catches for 972 yards and 17 touchdowns; Kaszas led Sheridan with 29 catches for 454 yards and eight TDs. And Jackson supplements all of that with 29 catches for 541 yards last year, giving East three game-breaking receivers they can put on the field at any time.
Ethan Brinkman, Cheyenne East. East’s middle linebacker typically produces big numbers no matter who’s there, but Brinkman took it to a whole new level last season by leading Class 4A in tackles with 122. East’s defense is deep this year, but Brinkman remains as the undisputed leader on that side of the ball.
Keagan Bartlett, Cheyenne Central. The Indians should be much better than they were last year, and in big part it will be on both the legs and the arms of their senior quarterback. Bartlett broke 1,000 yards both rushing and passing last season, and did so on a team that finished 2-8. With improved players around him, this year could be huge.
Carter McBurnett, Rock Springs. Across Class 4A, only three returning all-state players were selected to offensive line positions last season. McBurnett doesn’t have any eye-popping defensive statistics (24 tackles last season), but the senior is the Tigers’ only returning all-state player and has seen significant minutes since his freshman year, a critical piece to a young set of linemen in Sweetwater County.
Four key games
Cheyenne Central at Sheridan, Aug. 26. On paper, the defending champs from up north might look like they’ve got it easy in their season opener, but the Indians will be an improved team. This game will tell us a lot about how the rest of the 4A season will go.
Cheyenne East at Natrona, Sept. 2. This game won’t be a make-or-break one — early September ones rarely are. But it will be a key decider of how the top of 4A will shape up, and the loser here will have to chase the other the rest of the season.
Thunder Basin at Rock Springs, Sept. 2. Class 4A’s dark horse might emerge right here. Both teams have earned big expectations, but similarly both teams have to overcome big graduation departures. A victory here for either the ‘Bolts or Tigers will help dictate the directions of the remainder of their seasons.
Cheyenne East at Sheridan, Sept. 30. Sheridan gets both East and Central at home this season, a little quirk in the schedule that will be a nice boost to the Broncs — if they can take advantage of home field.
Predicted order of finish
Cheyenne East; Sheridan; Natrona; Cheyenne Central; Thunder Basin; Rock Springs; Campbell County; Kelly Walsh; Laramie; Cheyenne South.
Way-too-early title game score prediction
Cheyenne East 33, Sheridan 28. If anyone is going to break up the triumvirate of typical 4A champions, they’re going to eventually have to through one, or two, or three of them in the playoffs. The old cliche goes that to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best — but the best are the best for a reason.
Who are you envisioning holding the trophy come November? Is it one of the expected teams, or will someone jump up and give us all something unexpected? Leave a comment, or drop a line on Twitter or Facebook.
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