BIG HORN — It takes a special football team to win a state championship. If that squad also finishes the season without a loss, it can lay claim to being truly elite.
The Big Horn High School football team is one win away from doing just that.
The Rams stand at 10-0 and will face Cokeville Saturday afternoon in Laramie for the 1A state championship.
A victory would secure the fourth perfect season in Big Horn program history, the latest instance occurring in 2003.
The team set a goal at the beginning of the season to finish with a spotless record and has seemingly breezed through the season thus far, winning every game by at least 21 points.
Big Horn head coach Kirk McLaughlin pointed to talent, experience and preparation as key aspects of having the potential to finish a season with a perfect record.
“You’ve gotta be prepared week in and week out,” McLaughlin said. “You can’t take a team for granted.”
Despite the ease with which the Rams have handled opponents, everything hasn’t gone perfectly.
McLaughlin said he has found this year to require more refocusing on team goals than initially anticipated, as the team has occasionally dealt with the pressure and weight of expectations.
During a season spanning nearly three months, it can be difficult to maintain a high level of intensity the entire time, especially when almost all of Big Horn’s games are decided by halftime.
“You have to just realign yourself every once in a while is what I’m learning in the process,” McLaughlin said. “That definitely wasn’t in the plan at the beginning of the year.”
The Rams plateaued a bit after their road win against Pine Bluffs in Week Five and faced injuries and sickness but have recovered to play their best football of the season heading into the championship.
Sheridan High School football head coach Jeff Mowry said adversity in a football season is normal, even for a team as dominant as Big Horn. Mowry was an assistant for last season’s unbeaten Broncs and played on two Riverton High School teams that went undefeated in 1998 and ‘99.
He remarked on the pressure and expectations that intensify the further along in a season a team remains undefeated.
“Maybe you start pressing so hard that you’re not executing like you should,” Mowry said. “Maybe you’re trying to make such a big play that you forget ball security or something like that. To me, that’s what makes it a challenge, is you’re expected to win. You expect to win, the fans expect you to win, coaches expect you to win. All the pressure comes onto you, rather than the other team.”
Mowry said team chemistry is vital for teams that want to finish a season unscathed, along with leadership from a few key players.
Former BHHS football head coach Michael McGuire, who is now the offensive coordinator at Dickinson State University in South Dakota, said the teams with the highest odds of going undefeated have talent, health and zero in on the task at hand each week.
“The groups that have the best chance of doing that are the ones that really aren’t focused on the big picture,” McGuire said. “If you start looking down the road too much, you can start putting too much emphasis on that and not enough on what you need to do that day to get better.”
McGuire led the Rams from 2012-17, compiling a 56-8 overall record with two state championships and two second-place finishes.
Despite the success, McGuire never had a team finish unbeaten while he was at the helm; the two title-winning teams each had one loss.
“It’s quite a feat if you can accomplish it,” McGuire said of going undefeated. “It takes a pretty special group of guys. You’ve gotta have a very strong, focused senior class, I believe, to have that happen.”
Led by seniors like Kade Eisele, Seth Mullinax and Kade VanDyken, the Rams certainly have a quality, veteran group.
“They really know what they want to accomplish,” McGuire said. “I think they feel like they might’ve let one (championship) get away last year and they’re going to try to do everything they can in their power to not let that happen this year.”
VanDyken concurred and said competing for a state championship has always been the team’s goal in recent years. This year, though, the seniors gathered as a group before the season and were determined to win every game.
“At the beginning of the year, we all knew we had a chance to do something great, but we wanted to be as perfect as possible,” VanDyken said. “The undefeated season and state (championship) would have even more significance.”
“That’s kind of the perfect way to go out,” he said.
The stresses that normally accompany the quest for perfection haven’t impacted the Rams too much yet, and a win over Cokeville would cap off an ideal season.