SHERIDAN — While it may not necessarily be the last time, Friday marks the final Thunder Bowl for at least a few years.
The Big Horn Rams host the Tongue River Eagles Friday, with the two teams heading in different directions as football programs.
The Rams are off to the playoffs next week, similar to last year, seemingly ready to go as far as they allow themselves to go. The Eagles season will be over, and they’ll move to 1A next fall.
Not as bleak is the Eagles outlook this year, even as they finish outside of postseason play. Their two wins this season show marked progress after a winless 2012.
Unsteady participation is something a small-school rivalry like the Thunder Bowl is no stranger to.
Both head coaches are in just their second year, and Eagles man John Scott is largely to thank for fueling the progress in Dayton. While not shown necessarily in the win column, gains can be seen in fundamental growth on the field.
The nearly 60-year-old cross-county rivalry carries a unique feel when it comes to high school football.
“Small school rivalries are unique because there is such a sense of community pride in smaller schools,” McGuire said Tuesday. “People in smaller communities often know many of the players involved so there is a feeling that they’re involved personally or have someone to root for.”
While coaches were unsure on whether or not they’d be able to continue their meetings as interclass opponents. McGuire was hopeful that some arrangement could be made. Scott, who is also TRHS Activities Director, said he hadn’t thought of it yet, and would do “what was in the best interest of both programs.”
The Rams secured the No. 2 seed in the East last Friday night. After their 55-20 win over Moorcroft, Wheatland fell to No. 1 seed Burns.
They are guaranteed a first-round home playoff game, and they’ll work to shore up their execution and cut down on penalties this week — things that have been their biggest downfall this season.
The Eagles know its a tough task in front of them Friday on the field.
“We would have to play a perfect game and hope that the Rams are completely out of sync,” Scott said. “On paper nor on the hoof is it a comparable matchup. They are a very talented team, well coached, and very impressive running an upper-level system.
“We though, can’t allow them to be the better ‘effort’ team as well — that is something we have control over.”
Tongue River’s wins in 2013 came over Moorcroft 12-0 and then Wright two weeks ago, 14-6. Last week, they lost 56-15 in Newcastle. It’s been a year of “firsts” for the Eagles. Their victory over Moorcroft broke a three-year losing streak, and a win Friday would be their first over the Rams since 2006. A year ago in Dayton, the Rams put away the game before halftime, winning 49-8 in a game that typified the state of each program. It’s still forecast as a mismatch this season. The Rams (6-1) potent offense led by seniors Connor McCafferty and Colter Carzoli averages 41.6 points per game, with the Eagles (2-5) putting up 8.6 points per contest.
In the end, McGuire wants his team to focus on themselves and continue getting better because their season goes beyond Friday.
“There are many areas we can improve drastically in and we’re working hard to do so,” he said. “Our overall execution and situational football are still points of emphasis for us.
“Motivation isn’t hard to come by this week, we know TR is an improved team and we want to play our best game of the season on our home field for senior day.”
Overall, it’s Tongue River who leads the series 34-19-1. The Eagles won the first 17 games with the exception of a 6-6 tie in 1961.
Teams met in Sheridan from 1984-1986, then did not play for 10 years as it was Big Horn that struggled with low participation. In 1995, they renewed the rivalry when the Eagles won 46-20 in at the old Central Field in Sheridan. Teams still played with varying class sizes, and the Rams that year, under longtime coach Rick Scherry (coach from 1975-2000), played 9-man on offense while the Eagles, then coached by P.J. Marshall (1994-2005), operated with 11 men.
The series continued in Sheridan until 1999, and teams have played every year since ‘95 until 2011 when the Eagles forfeited the year due to low participation — the same reason for their move next year. Scott said the plan is, if class sizes remain consistent in their lower grades, to be back at 2A in four years.
McGuire is no stranger to small schools, he attended Greybull High School and won state title coaching at Riverside. He knows what it’s like to have this type of meeting between schools, in this case that are in the same school district.
“It’s a sense of both community and school pride and it’s really felt in small towns,” he said. “This rivalry is unique in that we are in the same district, so oftentimes we see or work with people on the other side of the rivalry. It’s a game that’s important to both sides and I know our kids are excited about the opportunity to play them on Friday. If this is it for this rivalry it will be sorely missed by both sides.”
“This rivalry game is like most,” Scott added. “The kids want to do well. With the schools being so close together these kids see each other on a regular basis — so earning one-anothers respect is important. A win would go a long ways in setting the table for next season.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m., Friday in Big Horn.
Note: The Rams senior day activities begin at 12:40, when they will recognize Connor McCafferty, Colter Carzoli, Deven Ibach, Kris Johnson, Michael Lamb, Andrew Schuster and Miles Novak, players that have “been a huge part of our program,” McGuire said.
This report was compiled with the help of wyoming-football.com, and Sheridan Press archives.