BIG HORN — The Wyoming football 1A state championship Saturday features a battle between two teams familiar with the high-pressure setting.
The Big Horn High School team is heading to Laramie for the third consecutive season and fifth time in six years. The Rams claimed 2A championships in 2013 and 2016 and will look to take home their second 1A championship, the first of which came in 1985.
The team from Cokeville High School is making its first journey to state in four years, but the Panthers have been a mainstay in Laramie under head coach Todd Dayton. This year marks the team’s 25th appearance in the title game since Dayton took over in 1980. In nearly 40 years, Dayton has amassed a 326-60 overall record — easily the most coaching wins in state history — and has led the Panthers to 20 state championships, the last one coming in 2014.
Both teams stand at 10-0 and have throttled most challengers this season.
The Rams are averaging 52.1 points per game and allowing 10.2 points per contest, most of those coming against Big Horn’s junior varsity defense. The Rams have scored at least 39 points in every contest so far and are coming off two overwhelming playoff victories, outscoring Wind River and Pine Bluffs by a combined score of 135-21.
Cokeville is averaging 40.7 points per outing and only giving up 6.5 points per game. The Panthers haven’t allowed more than 13 points in any game this year and have easily won their two postseason games as well, defeating Wright 61-8 and Upton-Sundance 25-6.
This year marks the second consecutive season the teams have met in the playoffs.
The Rams defeated the Panthers 12-7 last year in a semifinal matchup in Cokeville, the first contest between the two programs since 1988.
The Panthers had several quality players graduate from last year’s team but haven’t lost a step, going undefeated in the regular season for the second consecutive year.
In Week One this season, Cokeville handed 2A Mountain View — who is playing Buffalo for the state championship this week — its only loss of the season, winning 20-13.
“I was a little surprised when [the Panthers] beat Mountain View earlier in the year, but then after that I was like, ‘They’re going to be the team to beat,’” Big Horn head coach Kirk McLaughlin said. “Lo and behold, here we are, going to face them in the championship.”
Dual threat quarterback Bentley Johnson leads Cokeville’s disciplined, run-heavy offensive attack.
“We’re going to go against a legendary coach and I know their quarterback is one heck of a football player,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve got our hands full.”
McLaughlin said the Panthers will present the toughest challenge of the season because of their discipline.
“They execute their game plan better than anyone,” McLaughlin said. “They’re going to come ready to play. They’re 10-0 for a reason.”
The head coach said Big Horn has to take care of the ball and execute their fundamentals at a high level to come away with a victory.
“We’re going to have to be the most disciplined we’ve been all year,” McLaughlin said. “We gotta play hard and be executing schemes and using the correct technique more than ever.”
The Rams certainly did that last week in probably their best performance of the year, a 68-13 thrashing of Pine Bluffs.
Running back and defensive back Will Pelissier said the experienced Rams plan to bring their fast-paced offense into the state matchup.
“I know the coaches will put us in the best position to win,” Pelissier said. “They’ve been to Laramie before so they know what they’re doing.”
McLaughlin said the players are about as healthy as he can hope for heading into the final week.
Running back and linebacker Kade Eisele said if the Rams play up to their recent levels, they have a great chance of capturing that elusive state title. Eisele said he feels great this year compared to last season, when he was limited in the championship game due to a hip injury suffered in the semifinal game.
“I couldn’t be feeling better right now,” Eisele said. “I’m pretty thrilled to play.”
The game kicks off Saturday at 1 p.m. in Laramie at War Memorial Stadium.