“Sometimes the distance from point A to point B is not always a straight line. Sometimes it takes funny curves along the way.” –Jackson football coach Jim Rooks, speaking to the Jackson Hole Guide, Nov. 11, 1986
In the history of Wyoming high school football, no championship chase has seen more curves than the Class 3A championship race from 1986.
In that season, six different teams were ranked No. 1, and neither of the two teams ranked No. 1 in the final two weeks of the regular season played in the state championship game. Every team in the classification finished with at least three losses. Neither the East nor the West Conference had an undefeated champion. And every single top-ranked team eventually fell victim to “the curse.”
Ultimately, the Class 3A title race of 1986 was one where several teams had a chance, but seemingly none of them wanted to win.
(Optional but recommended: To establish the correct atmosphere for reading this post, I recommend that you click on the following YouTube video and let it play in the background as you read.)
The preseason buzz in Class 3A heading into 1986 was where it belonged: squarely on the shoulders of the defending champions. In 1985, Evanston overcame a pair of early losses and swept through the 3A West part of its schedule. The Red Devils, in doing so, earned the right to host the championship game, and once there Evanston blew out Torrington by 39 points to win its first championship since 1951.
But Evanston had a problem. All six of its all-state choices had been seniors, and none of the seniors entering 1986 were returning starters, leaving the defending champs inexperienced all over the field — and, as it turns out, overrated.
A bunch of suitors were ready to take the Red Devils’ place. As a Class 3A preseason story in the Casper Star-Tribune on Sept. 5 of that year noted in its lead: “At least eight teams could win the 1986 3-A state title…”
There was Torrington, runner-up the year before and talented. There was Glenrock, 6-2 the year before and experienced on the backfield. There was Douglas, 5-4 in 1985 but with a dozen returning starters. There was Star Valley, traditionally tough and rebuilding. There was Wheatland, steadily improving and just a year removed from the title it had earned in ’84. There was Jackson, which brought back eight senior starters. There was Powell, which boasted 21 returning lettermen in the senior class alone. And then there were Buffalo, Worland, Newcastle and Thermopolis, all eager to prove they, too, belonged in the discussion.
Then came Week 1, the first curve in the road.
Of those 12 Class 3A teams, only three earned victories to open the season — Glenrock’s 14-8 nail-biter against Thermopolis; Jackson’s 27-0 shutout of Livingston, Montana; and Star Valley’s 15-14 squeaker against Rock Springs.
Preseason No. 1 Evanston lost, 15-12 to Green River. So had No. 2 Torrington, losing 12-7 to Kimball, Neb. So had No. 3 Wheatland, losing 12-6 in overtime to Cheyenne East. So had No. 5 Douglas, taking a 19-6 beating from Rawlins.
Jackson’s Broncs, the only ranked team to win, shot to the top of the polls.
Rankings after Week 1: 1. Jackson, 2. Evanston, 3t. Torrington, Star Valley, 5. Wheatland.
If Week 2 was supposed to bring stability to the Class 3A race, it didn’t.
Jackson’s good fortune ran out in a 12-10 loss to South Fremont, Idaho. Defending champion and No. 2 Evanston lost again, this time 28-0 to Rawlins. And Torrington lost again, this time 24-6 to Cody.
Just like that, the three teams ranked 1-2-3 all lost.
Star Valley emerged as the shining beacon of hope in the second week, taking out Bear Lake, Idaho, 13-3 to join Wheatland (35-8 over Thermopolis) as the only ranked teams to win. Meanwhile, Powell — idle in Week 1 — made a statement by beating Buffalo on the road, 13-6, and Glenrock improved to 2-0 by beating Morrill, Neb., 34-18.
And in a game few people paid attention to at the time, Worland knocked off Douglas 14-6. By the time the season would finish, both teams would be key players in the championship race; right now, it was a nonconference game between two unranked opponents.
Rankings after Week 2: 1. Star Valley, 2. Wheatland, 3. Glenrock, 4. Jackson, 5. Powell.
In three weeks of rankings and two weeks of play, three different West teams had enjoyed the top spot in the rankings. Star Valley, lightly regarded but still a threat after a 2-6 season in 1985, became the first to enjoy it, taking a bye in Week 3 and keeping the threats to the No. 1 spot at bay.
Meanwhile, Wheatland caved to the pressure. As did Jackson. As did Powell. All three ranked teams lost: No. 2 Wheatland 43-17 to Rock Springs, No. 4 Jackson 7-6 in overtime to Green River and No. 5 Powell 7-0 to Cody. Once again, it was Glenrock — unranked to start the season — that came out on the other end victorious, a 15-8 W against Rawlins to its credit.
But defending champ Evanston lost, again, as did Worland; Buffalo beat a JV team; Torrington barely survived against a smaller Mitchell, Neb., team. Who wants to win this thing?
Rankings after Week 3: 1. Star Valley, 2. Glenrock, 3. Jackson, 4. Powell, 5. Wheatland.
Star Valley’s first chance to defend its No. 1 ranking went just as well as it had for the other teams who had been in the same position so far this year.
The Braves couldn’t put a single point up against Green River, falling 6-0 and losing their grip on the top spot in the rankings in the process. And they lost that No. 1 spot to… Glenrock, which couldn’t screw up its fast start while taking a bye week.
But Jackson lost, as did Wheatland — Jackson 23-13 to Lander, Wheatland 36-6 to Rawlins — as the majority of ranked teams again lost. Powell was the only ranked survivor, and even that wasn’t all that impressive, a 20-14 overtime victory against a struggling Riverton program. Evanston and Worland also lost nonconference games, but the East started to take shape as Douglas beat Buffalo 14-0 to move to 2-0 in league play.
At this point, 3A teams were a combined 17-28.
Rankings after Week 4: 1. Glenrock, 2. Star Valley, 3. Powell, 4. Torrington, 5. Jackson.
By virtue of its non-loss against “bye” in Week 4, Glenrock jumped into the top spot of the 3A rankings heading into Week 5.
Guess what? The Herders promptly lost, continuing a streak of losses by 3A No. 1 teams — who were now 0-4 while playing with that ranking to start the 1986 season.
A 17-0 thumping at the hands of unranked Wheatland ended the Herders’ perfect start and sent them freefalling down the East Conference standings, where Douglas and Wheatland shared the top spot at 2-0 despite mirroring overall records of 2-3. While Wheatland was beating Glenrock, Douglas was losing, again, this time to Scottsbluff, Neb., in a game that didn’t affect the conference race.
In the 2-vs.-3 matchup between Star Valley and Powell, the higher-ranked team lost. Because of course they did, as was now tradition in 1986 3A play. Powell survived the trip to Afton and left victors, 24-22, and were the highest-ranked team to win that week.
Torrington did survive despite being in the rankings, blanking downtrodden Newcastle 21-0, and Jackson, too, came away victorious, 22-6 against Worland in a game that few realized the importance of at the time.
Rankings after Week 5: 1. Powell, 2. Torrington, 3. Glenrock, 4. Star Valley, 5. Jackson.
The Powell Panthers had earned their spot atop the 3A rankings, coming in with a 3-1 record and a focus on ending the curse that had plagued No. 1 teams all year.
Did it work?
Do you even need to ask?
Final score: Worland 3, Powell 0.
Just like every other 3A No. 1 team before them, Powell failed at its opportunity to retain its prestige.
Two East teams, however, proved up to the pressure. Both Torrington and Glenrock won — the Trailblazers beating rival Wheatland 27-12 and Glenrock edging past Buffalo 21-7 — to justify their spots. And Star Valley won big, 41-6 over Thermopolis.
As for Jackson? Well, winless Evanston (Remember Evanston? This is a story about Evanston.) picked up its first victory of the year, and how, in a 27-7 shellacking of the Broncs in Uinta County. With the victory, Evanston was now the lone remaining undefeated team in West Conference play at — get this — 1-0.
Rankings after Week 6: 1. Torrington, 2. Glenrock, 3. Star Valley, 4. Powell, 5. Douglas.
Just seven weeks into the season, Torrington became already the sixth different Class 3A program to be voted to the top of the rankings.
For their sins, Torrington was scheduled to face Glenrock, who just happened to be ranked second and was the only one-loss team remaining in 3A at 4-1. (Remember how Wheatland beat Glenrock 17-0? Yeah, Wheatland, now 2-4 and unranked… yeah.)
But curses don’t last forever, and the Trailblazers did everything they could to end this stupid trend. And they did just that, embarrassing the Herders on their own field in doing so in a 35-0 Trailblazer road romp.
No. 1 had finally proven worthy of the ranking.
No. 3 wasn’t, though. Star Valley’s resurgence ended with a 22-21 loss to Worland that sent the Braves to the West Conference cellar at 0-2 in league play. Evanston couldn’t keep its West record spotless any longer either, though, and Powell’s 32-0 beatdown of the Red Devils turned some heads.
Torrington looked set. With Wheatland beating Douglas 20-13 to KO the No. 5 team, the Trailblazers were alone as the only undefeated team in East play. And they were still No. 1.
Rankings after Week 7: 1. Torrington, 2. Powell, 3. Glenrock, 4. Star Valley, 5. Worland.
At home, No. 1, in control of their postseason destiny and facing an unranked team with a losing record, Torrington had every reason to be confident heading into Week 8 against Douglas.
But the curse? The one they had buried deep in the end zone in Glenrock? Well, it crawled out of the dirt, attached itself to the team bus before it left town, hung around Goshen County for a few days and showed up at Wiseman Field right around kickoff to take a big ol’ dump on Torrington’s plans. At the end of it all, Torrington had lost control of everything — ranking, championship hopes, all of it — in a 12-6 loss to Douglas.
No. 1, losers again.
The East race was just as exciting in the middle, as Buffalo upset Wheatland 22-7. Heading into the final week of the regular season, five of the six playoff-eligible East teams — Douglas, Torrington, Wheatland, Glenrock and Buffalo — were still alive for the conference championship. ADs actually set plans for what would happen in case of a five-way tie for the East title, which was a mathematical possibility.
Powell smelled its opportunity to jump back to No. 1 all the way from Goshen County, and the Panthers made good by shellacking Thermopolis by 40. But Star Valley couldn’t make good on its ranking, losing to Jackson for the first time since 1981, 17-6, to all but fall out of title contention. And Worland barely survived against one-win Evanston, 15-8.
Rankings after Week 8: 1. Powell, 2. Torrington, 3. Glenrock, 4. Worland, 5. Douglas.
Powell was in the absolute dumbest of situations as the No. 1-ranked team heading into the final week of the regular season.
Powell and its Week 9 opponent, unranked Jackson, were both 2-1 in the West. They were both chasing Worland, which was 3-1 and off playing winless Thermopolis in a nonconference game to end the regular season.
If Powell lost, Jackson and Worland would tie, and Jackson would win the tiebreaker. If Powell won, Powell and Worland would tie, and Worland would win the tiebreaker.
So despite being top-ranked, tied with Glenrock for the best 3A record (5-2) and potential conference co-champion, Powell’s season would end against Jackson, no matter what.
You could call it a curse. But this was simply a case of one team having something to play for and the other one not. Jackson took that spot, beating Powell 12-0 in the shadows of the Tetons to tie for the conference title, win a tiebreaker and earn its spot in the 3A championship game.
Yes, that Jackson. The one that’s not anywhere to be found in this week’s rankings, that entered the final week at .500, victim of the curse in Week 2, losers to one-win Evanston. Those guys. Title game.
And No. 1 had lost again.
Meanwhile, in the East, it was Douglas — ranked behind conference rivals Torrington and Glenrock — that has the biggest say in its postseason fate. With the potential five-way tie looming, the Bearcats did their part to avoid it, beating Converse County rival Glenrock 25-22 to win the East’s bid to the title game. Never mind what Torrington did. Incidentally, the Trailblazers beat Buffalo 8-0. Didn’t matter. With both teams at 4-1 in league play, Douglas had won the tiebreaker with its victory against Torrington (the curse game last week).
Ranked No. 5 to start the week, Douglas was in. And hosting.
Rankings after Week 9: 1. Torrington, 2. Douglas, 3. Jackson, 4. Powell, 5. Wheatland.
Standings after Week 9
Douglas 5-1 5-4
Torrington 4-1 6-3
Wheatland 4-2 4-5
Glenrock 3-3 5-3
Buffalo 3-3 4-5
Newcastle 1-5 2-7
Thermopolis 0-5 0-9
Jackson 3-1 5-4
Worland 3-1 5-4
Powell 2-2 5-3
Star Valley 1-3 4-4
Evanston 1-3 1-7
Entering the final week of the regular season, Jackson was unranked, Douglas was No. 5. Now, with identical nonthreatening 5-4 records, and with neither team sporting the No. 1 ranking (no threat of a curse, at least…), they faced off for the 3A championship.
Again, the question arose: Does anyone actually want to win this thing?
Douglas took a 16-0 lead in the third quarter, but the fact that the Bearcats only had 16 points after four Jackson turnovers, including several in Douglas territory, kept the momentum from totally swinging Douglas’ way. Once Jackson did get on the board to cut it to 16-8, Douglas lost the momentum war and fumbled deep in its own territory. However, when Jackson scored again to make it 16-14, the Broncs couldn’t convert on the potential game-tying 2-point conversion.
Late in the fourth quarter, Douglas fumbled, again, near midfield, and Jackson got a big pass play to get inside the Bearcat 5-yard line. But three rushes produced less than three yards, meaning the foot of Bill Wiley — later head coach of the Broncs, but just a sophomore lineman/kicker at the time — would be the one to decide it all.
For once, someone decided that No. 1 wasn’t such a bad thing.
Wiley’s field-goal kick from 19 yards was true. Douglas’ last drive ended with an interception, and Jackson ran out the clock to win the title 17-16 in the weirdest, wackiest, most curse-ridden season across a single classification in state history.
As defending champion, Jackson started the 1987 3A season ranked No. 1. The Broncs lost to Lander 29-7 in their season opener.