SHERIDAN — A 298-mile drive separates Sheridan High School from the front gate at War Memorial Stadium. Trim a few miles to get to the field from Big Horn. No matter the school from which you depart, you’re still looking at more than four hours on the road.
But a trip from the top of Wyoming to the bottom is all that divides the Sheridan Broncs and the Big Horn Rams from their second homes. War Memorial Stadium has become as familiar to both football programs as any other field in the state.
Both teams head to Laramie this weekend to compete for state football championships, common territory for both programs.
Since the state championships were moved to the University of Wyoming stadium in 2009, the Rams and Broncs have combined for nine games played on the field. Saturday marks games 10 and 11. All but one of those trips came under current coaches Michael McGuire (Big Horn) and Don Julian (Sheridan).
In fact, Sheridan won the inaugural 4A championship in Laramie, a 40-15 blowout over Cheyenne Central. The teams have combined to win six titles in that span.
This week will be the third straight trip to the state championship for the Broncs and the second in a row for the Rams. By end of day Saturday, Sheridan will have actually played more games on Jonah Field over the past three seasons than any other field in the state other than Homer Scott Field.
“I think we’re really comfortable there,” Julian said. “The walk-through that we do and stuff, it’ll bring them right back to last year. I think that helps us.”
The familiarity of the situation helps both teams. Most players have played at least a snap or two on Jonah Field. Just about all of them have at least experienced a state championship as a fan.
But making the trip to Laramie and playing in a unique environment still brings some uncontrollable variables. Both teams will take the bus trip to Laramie Friday and stay overnight before playing the next day. Big Horn had just one overnight trip this season — last week against Cokeville — and Sheridan had none.
For the coaching staffs at both schools, the key to the week is to keep the schedule as close to a normal week as possible. McGuire makes sure to get all the planning and logistics out of the way first thing to start the week, so the remainder of the week can be spent strictly on football.
The teams will take some time walking the stadium and the practice facility to get a feel for its size and set up. But Julian compared it to the scene in “Hoosiers” when Hickory plays in a gym much larger than its old barn back home. The baskets were 10-feet high; the free-throw line was still 15-feet from the hoop.
“I think you’ll find these exact same measurements as our gym back in Hickory,” coach Dale says in the film.
“At the end of the day, it’s still 100 yards, and it’s still 10 yards for a first down,” Julian said of Jonah Field.
The major difference between the small high school fields and the 29,000-seat stadium in Laramie, though, is how loud and compact everything is. Without a track separating the bleachers from the sideline, fans are much closer to the action. Even with the stadium two-thirds empty, Julian said it feels like the crowd is sitting right on top of you, and the cheering engulfs the stadium.
So the Broncs will crank the music at Homer Scott Field this week. They’ll work on hand signals.
But at the end of the day, the Broncs and Rams are playing for state championships. That, to the coaches, is what playing at War Memorial Stadium means. The surroundings simply acknowledge how far the teams made it in the season.
“I think most of that comes from knowing that you’re playing in a championship game,” McGuire said of the excitement. “I think the atmosphere is probably different for the fans more than it is the team. Once the ball is kicked off, it’s business as usual, and the teams seem to settle in pretty quick.”
Sheridan senior lineman Blayne Baker admitted that the familiarity of the game and the stadium keeps the players calm, but he tries not to shut everything out. It’s a special place, he said. Having played in two games on Jonah Field prior to this season weighed heavily into his decision to sign with the Pokes in the summer.
“The goal heading into this season, right after I committed, was to end my high school career where I’m going to start my college career,” Baker said. “It’s worked out in my favor, of course.”
Only Natrona has played as many games at War Memorial Stadium as Sheridan, and the two will square off on familiar turf Saturday. Pine Bluffs, Big Horn’s championship opponent, has made the trip to Laramie just once — a year ago.
Experiences have varied for all four teams. But the Broncs and Rams have established a level of comfort at their home away from home, and the comfort has built walls full of championship banners.
“My favorite part of playing at the War is that it’s a championship game,” McGuire said. “I don’t have a least favorite part of it. If it means we’re playing for a championship, I enjoy it all.”