Don’t call it a transfusion, but Class 2A is going to be ready for some new blood this season.
It should be a year of change, as only seven all-state players will be back this year — and three of those are in Lyman. For perspective, the East Conference only has two such players combined among its eight teams.
Despite all the changes, Lyman still looks to be the favorite after winning titles in both 2020 and 2021. The Eagles return several backs and receivers and, despite some big holes to fill on the line, will have the kind of talent to keep expectations high in the Bridger Valley.
Lyman’s challenge this year is to ascend from flare-up to dynasty. No team in Wyoming’s grouping of the third-largest schools (variously called 2A and 3A, depending on the era) has won three consecutive titles since Thermopolis did so from 1990-92.
The Eagles aren’t immune to the challenges other 2A programs face. They, too, will need to rely on new varsity contributors. It’s just that Lyman’s reliance is quite a bit lower than other programs statewide — and they’re riding the momentum of back-to-back titles.
Four questions to answer
Is anyone beating Lyman this year? Maybe not. A second consecutive undefeated season and third consecutive 2A title will be challenging, of course. But in a year where most other teams are trying to find their footing with new personnel, the Eagles return a ton of contributors who have helped the program win 19 consecutive games. The Eagles are beatable, yes, but it will take a supreme effort from a team on its “A” game — the last two years have proven that.
Who’s got the best chance to do that? Pick ’em. Lovell and Cokeville have gotten a lot of love in the preseason as the West’s best chances to take down the Eagles, Lovell in particular after an 8-6 loss in the championship and enough returners to be a legit contender. Out east, Torrington, Wheatland, Big Horn and others are drawing attention, in part because there are so many new players in key positions that no one is quite sure what to make of it all just yet.
Is anyone else coming out of the East? A tentative no. As noted, only two all-state players return in the entire East Conference — Big Horn QB Cooper Garber and Glenrock RB Logan Jones. The evacuation of talent via graduation leaves the whole East as a toss-up. Torrington’s preseason love comes in part from its reputation as two-time defending conference champs, but the Blazers’ newbies have a lot to prove. Tongue River, Upton-Sundance and Newcastle are in similar positions, while Burns and Glenrock are shifting to new head coaches. Everything’s jumbled, which should make for some really competitive and exciting football, just maybe no one who can threaten Lyman.
Who’s going to surprise in 2022? Kemmerer. The Rangers have only had one postseason appearance in the past nine years but have the look of a team on the rise. They return eight starters from an improved team last year and could be more challenging than their history might indicate.
Preseason class MVP
Ashton Houskeeper, Lyman. The reigning Class 2A offensive player of the year is back for his senior season after leading the Eagles to their second consecutive title last year. He led 2A in total rushing yards, finishing with 1,451 on 222 carries, and scored a classification-high 25 rushing touchdowns. He also threw for 700 more yards — and coach Dale Anderson said he’s getting better with his accuracy — and added 27 tackles and two interceptions on defense.
Preseason class breakout player
Bryce Hager, Torrington. Hager’s offensive numbers can’t help but jump this year as a junior, as the Trailblazers’ leading returning rusher and receiver (164 rushing yards, 131 receiving yards) is potentially moving to quarterback to lead an offense that’s typically balanced and effective. No matter where Hager ends up on offense, he’ll prove equally valuable on defense, where he has already had his breakout season; he was third on the team as a sophomore last year with 74 tackles.
Other players to watch
McKoy Smith, Lyman. Smith was a frustrating matchup for opposing teams on both offense and defense. On defense, he had 61 tackles and led Lyman with 35 solo tackles; he also had a team-high four interceptions. Offensively, he scored 12 total touchdowns and was Lyman’s top receiver with 17 catches for 378 yards (22.2 yards per catch) and five scores.
Logan Jones, Glenrock. Jones was Glenrock’s most consistent offensive weapon in an otherwise frustrating season. Even though the Herders didn’t win a single East Conference game, Jones still led Class 2A with 146.9 rushing yards per game, finishing 2021 with 1,175 yards on 236 attempts. Watch for his touchdown count, only five a year ago, to go up as a senior.
Cael Thompson and Landon Walker, Cokeville. The Panthers’ two returning all-state players actually tied for the team lead in tackles last year, notching 60 apiece. Offensively, Thompson will lead Cokeville’s offensive line while Walker takes the snaps and directs the offense; he had 854 passing yards last year, a total that might go up as the Panthers break in some new running backs.
Cooper Garber, Big Horn. The only other returning 2A all-state player who isn’t from Lyman, Garber is getting ready to start for the third year as the Rams’ quarterback. He’s been solid at that spot, throwing for 1,518 yards and 13 touchdowns last year and 1,276 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore. But the Rams need more than “solid” to make the leap to title contender.
Four key games
Lovell at Lyman, Sept. 16. The Bulldogs and Eagles won’t spend a lot of time reminiscing about their 2021 games — Lyman won both of them, including the state championship — because they make acquaintances, and both new memories and new motivations, in Week 3. It won’t take long for either to set a new pace for the West.
Torrington at Big Horn, Sept. 23. The schedule did no favors to the Trailblazers, who have to make back-to-back trips to Sheridan County in weeks 4 and 5. This is the first of those trips, and the improving Rams will present the first of two consecutive tough road challenges for the Goshen County crew.
Wheatland at Upton-Sundance, Oct. 7. The Patriots had the Bulldogs’ number for several years, but in 2021 Wheatland finally picked up its first victory in the series. With both teams figuring to be in the running for East Conference accolades, this will end up being a must-win for both teams to keep those dreams alive.
Lyman at Cokeville, Oct. 21. If both teams can stay healthy, avoid upsets and capitalize on their talents, the regular-season finale could be the game that decides home-field advantage in the playoffs. But a lot of football will need to be played between then and now, and 2A’s uncertainty this year might show itself both in Week 8 and before.
Predicted order of finish
East Conference: Torrington; Wheatland; Big Horn; Upton-Sundance; Tongue River; Newcastle; Burns; Glenrock.
West Conference: Lyman; Lovell; Cokeville; Kemmerer; Mountain View; Thermopolis; Pinedale.
Preseason top five: 1. Lyman; 2. Lovell; 3. Cokeville; 4. Torrington; 5. Wheatland.
Way-too-early title game score prediction
Lyman 20, Lovell 19. The Eagles’ three-peat hopes are real, but Lovell is in the best position to challenge Lyman’s ascent to dynasty status.
Next Thursday: Class 3A.