It’s impossible to talk about Class 4A football in Wyoming without talking about the influence of the Big Four.
Combined, the group of Sheridan, Natrona, Cheyenne East, and the unique circumstance of Gillette (up to 2016) and Thunder Basin (since 2017) have combined for 71 playoff victories since 2009.
The other 4A programs in Wyoming — Cheyenne Central, Cheyenne South, Kelly Walsh, Rock Springs and Laramie, and previously Evanston (left after 2016) and Green River (left after 2010) — have combined for six.
The stratification seemed to break a bit in 2019, as Cheyenne Central reached the semifinals while Natrona didn’t. Even so, two Big Four programs — Sheridan and Thunder Basin — met for the championship.
Sheridan won the big-school championship for the fourth time in five years, continuing the Big Four’s domination over the classification.
Central’s resurgence, though, is showing the path other 4A schools can take to challenge the supremacy of the programs that have dominated the goings-on for a decade.
Four questions to answer
Is the guard really changing in Class 4A? Yes, but don’t get too excited. Cheyenne Central — which hadn’t won a playoff game since 2009 prior to last year — will be the fifth team in the title chase, breaking up the “Big Four” of Cheyenne East, Thunder Basin, Sheridan and Natrona. And Rock Springs is hovering. However, there’s still a clear split between the top and the bottom of the classification.
Who’s going to win it all this year? Probably a team from Cheyenne. Both East and Central are absolutely loaded this year, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them play each other in a title game in November. That said, Sheridan can never be counted out, Thunder Basin will again be extremely talented, and Natrona lacks experience but has loads of tradition and depth.
Any hope for anyone else? Not really. I love what I saw from Rock Springs last year, and if they can turn close losses into close victories, the Tigers can be one of those teams other coaches hate to see on a schedule. Campbell County showed some spunk in the quarterfinals, too. And Laramie’s been the beneficiary of a transfer boom. All that said, a quarterfinal victory for anyone who’s not Thunder Basin, East, Central, Natrona or Sheridan would be a surprise. Central’s entry into this discussion is welcome surprise in a staid 4A, but a surprise nonetheless.
Really — nothing about Sheridan? OK, time for the Broncs to get their love. They deserve it. With four championships in five years, Sheridan can never be ruled out of a 4A championship chase. No program develops talent faster or more consistently than the one up north.
Four players to watch
Graedyn Buell, Cheyenne East. Buell did something pretty rare last year — he was named the Class 4A offensive player of the year as a junior. The stats back that choice, though. He led the entire state regardless of classification with 2,989 passing yards, completing 201 of 327 passes while sporting a 35-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Carter Lobatos, Cheyenne Central. No player in Wyoming will be a bigger threat on both offense and defense than Lobatos. He led the Indians’ rushing attack with 1,238 yards last year, and he also led Central’s defense with 127 tackles — second-best in 4A last year.
Jaxon Pikula, Thunder Basin. Pikula was a consistent threat out of Thunder Basin’s backfield, running for 1,189 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. He also caught 17 passes for 129 yards as part of a balanced ‘Bolts offense.
Andrew Johnson, Cheyenne Central. Johnson led Class 4A in receptions last year with 73 and was second in receiving yards with 994. But on defense, he finished with five interceptions and 10 pass deflections, numbers that no other returning player in 4A could match in 2019.
Four key games
Week 0 games, Aug. 28. The opening week of the season gives us two critical games that will go a long way in shaping this season’s 4A race — Central at Natrona and East at Thunder Basin. Both Cheyenne teams have high hopes, and if they can anchor those hopes to a 1-0 record, those hopes turn into expectations.
Thunder Basin at Rock Springs, Sept. 4. The Tigers could be 4A’s biggest surprise this year. All it would take is a couple attention-getting victories early in the season. Rock Springs has no better opportunity than this game against the ‘Bolts in Sweetwater County in the second game of the season.
Cheyenne East at Sheridan, Sept. 25. The Broncs have won the past seven games they’ve had with the Thunderbirds. East will need to find a way past Sheridan, at Homer Scott Field, to really show it belongs in the championship conversation.
Cheyenne East at Cheyenne Central, Oct. 9. The annual Capital Bowl takes on added fervor in 2020 with both teams trying to stake claims to the top spot in 4A. This might be the most critical rendition of the intra-city rivalry in more than a decade.
Predicted order of finish
Cheyenne East, Sheridan, Cheyenne Central, Thunder Basin, Natrona, Rock Springs, Laramie, Campbell County, Kelly Walsh, Cheyenne South.
Way-too-early title game score prediction
Cheyenne East 33, Sheridan 26. Class 4A will probably be (and normally is) the classification with the most variability between teams from the beginning to the end of a season. The game we see between them in September will probably be wildly different from any playoff rematch.