SHERIDAN — Seniors on the Sheridan High School football team have shared the gridiron for the last four years of high school and beyond, with many growing up and playing little guy football together. The years of practices and games for little guy, junior and freshman football have been preparing the Broncs for the ultimate goal: winning a state title.
“You work your whole life for this,” said senior Ethan Johnson. “I started [playing football] in fifth grade. I was on Parker Christensen’s team in my fifth grade year and then sixth grade I was with Garrett (Coon), Lowden (Askins) and a couple of other players. You just work your whole life to go up to this point to be with those kids to try to win the end goal of a state championship.”
The seniors have seen the Broncs attend a state championship bout since their freshman year and will play in their third title game. This provides the seniors and the rest of the Broncs with an understanding of the routine. They know what hotel they will be staying in, the types of meals they will be eating, where the locker rooms will be located and the experience of playing in War Memorial Stadium.
Head coach Jeff Mowry said there are not many former Wyoming high school players that can claim to have played three title games in Laramie, and it is a great opportunity for the Broncs.
With the opportunity of success also comes the possibility of failure. The current seniors have experienced a win and a loss in the previous two title games; winning as sophomores and tasting defeat last year as juniors. Both games were against Natrona County High School with the same final score of 28-14.
“It is a great feeling when you win and a not so good feeling when you lose,” said Senior Jacob Boint. “Being able to draw on those memories, know what it felt like when we would look up and see the big Sheridan Bronc on the big screen and then the next year seeing someone else’s logo. Just having that taste in your mouth and playing with that chip that we know what it takes to play there and what it is going to be like. Just having that experience will be good for us.”
Winning the state game will not be determined by a single Bronc or even the starting players. The Broncs require all 53 members of the roster to be successful and each player on the team has a role to play.
“That is something we have preached all year and something the coaches put a really big emphasis on,” Boint said. “One quote we say over and over again is, ‘Not all roles are equal but all roles have equal value.’ Recognizing that it takes every guy out here to make the team what it is and no role is bigger than the next. Just having that bond and that brotherhood of knowing that we need everybody is something that has helped us all year.”
Mowry said some players will have a role to play on Saturday and for others, their role is during the week of practice leading up to the game. No matter what, each player has a role and contributes to creating a championship-caliber team.
“You do not see all the names in the newspaper or all the guys on the starting lineup but that sophomore young man that does not play on Friday nights has just as big as a role as our starters because without him we do not have a good scout team and without him we do not have other things that happen well in practice,” Mowry said. “We truly believe that it takes every person on our roster and understanding that their role is critical so that we can have a championship quality team.”
Boint said the scout team plays an important role in the Broncs weekly preparation. The scout teams provide varsity players with an idea of what to expect in the upcoming game while also having a chance to improve on their own fundamentals.
Standing in the Broncs way and trying to obtain the young high school’s first state football title is a formidable Thunder Basin Bolts. Thunder Basin High School opened as the second high school in Gillette in 2017 and has won two state titles, earned by the girls basketball team and the girls golf team in 2019.
Mowry said Thunder Basin is going to be excited about the title game and expects a great Gillette crowd to be in attendance. The fact that it is their first title game in school history will not distract Thunder Basin. A few of the coaches for Thunder Basin were on the Campbell County High School coaching staff when Sheridan won the 2015 state title against CCHS 38-31.
Thunder Basin took the regular-season meeting over the Broncs 37-30 and handed Sheridan its only loss of the season. Thunder Basin has remained perfect all season with an 11-0 record.
“Thunder Basin is a great opponent and they have some athletic kids and I think it is going to be a great matchup,” Johnson said. “I am looking forward to round two with them; I know I left the field when we played them knowing a couple of things I could have done better and wished I had done better. I feel like we are going to come out and play and it is going to be a battle until the final whistle.”
Thunder Basin shut down the Sheridan rushing attack in the first game, holding the Broncs to 90 yards rushing on 30 attempts. It was the only game all season Sheridan rushed for less than 100 yards. Sheridan gained 128 yards through the air.
Since that loss, the Broncs have pounded the ball on the ground, gaining more than 200 yards in five of the last seven games. Sheridan leads 4A in rushing with 231 yards per game and is the second-best offense with 378 total yards per game. Sheridan averages a 4A best 43.2 points per game.
“We are definitely a run first, pass later team,” Johnson said. “We pass when we need to and we execute the passing game but our run game has gotten a lot better since we faced them in Week 3. I am looking forward to see what we can do.”
Thunder Basin enters the title game with the best defense in 4A, allowing an average of 222 yards of offense per game. Thunder Basin is second in 4A in rushing and passing defense. The Bolts’ leader on defense is middle linebacker Caleb Driskill, who has committed to play at the University of Wyoming next season on scholarship. Driskill leads 4A with 135 tackles — 66 assisted and 58 unassisted— along with four blocked kicks.
Johnson said there is a reason why Driskill was recruited by Wyoming. Driskill is physically large and can move around the field really well.
Mowry said Driskill can cover the field sideline to sideline and has the ability to stuff the run and drop into coverage, effectively defending the pass. Driskill does not play a lot of offense for Thunder Basin and is a strong contributor on special teams.
Mowry said the Broncs are focusing on securing their punt protection, trying to prevent blocked punts that hurt the Broncs in last year’s title game.
Winning the field position battle will be key for the Broncs. Coverage and return special teams play a role in flipping field position, Mowry said. The Broncs have done a good job this year with covering punts and kickoffs, forcing teams to drive the length of the field to score.
The Broncs have created their own opportunities for short fields and point with their return teams this year. Sheridan has had a special team touchdown in the two playoff games so far: a kickoff return against Kelly Walsh High School and a punt return against Cheyenne Central High School. Both returns were by Carter McComb who also returned a Central kickoff to the 1-yard line, setting up a Bronc touchdown.
Mowry said it has not been McComb alone, but everyone on the return teams has been executing well. Sheridan emphasizes special teams starting at the first practice each year.
The Sheridan defense has a tough task in front of them against an explosive Thunder Basin offense. Thunder Basin was pass heavy to start the year but has since found its own balance, rushing for more than 200 yards in two of the last three games. Thunder Basin rushed for 194 yards against Campbell County to start the playoffs, its one game recording less than 200 yards.
The Bolts are led by quarterback Mason Hamilton who averages 205 yards a game. Hamilton was named to the 2018 Casper Star-Tribune Super 25 team last year and has the possibility to be named again this year, Mowry said.
Averaging 105.9 yards rushing for the Bolts is Jaxon Pikula. As a team, Thunder Basin averages 157.7 yards rushing.
The Sheridan defense allowed more than 400 yards of offense in the first game and will need to cut down that number to have a chance to win.
Outside of the Thunder Basin game, the Sheridan defense has played well all year, entering the championship game as the best 4A team against the run, allowing 98.2 yards per game on average and the third best 4A defense with 263 yards allowed per game. Sheridan has allowed 15.6 points per game, the lowest in 4A.
Thunder Basin looks to win the first boys state title in school history while Sheridan attempts to win the 27th state football title for the school.
Both teams have offenses that can score the ball and defenses that know how to keep points off the scoreboard. The teams decide who will have their logo displayed proudly in War Memorial Stadium 4 p.m. Saturday in Laramie.