Red Devils Football
CASPER — To say the Red Devils’ game at Dick Cheney Alumni Field against the top-ranked Natrona County Mustangs tonight, Friday, Oct. 5, will be their toughest game this season, is a gross understatement. The Mustangs have it cranking on all cylinders, full-bore.
Talk in the Oil City and around the state, from football minds who have seen and the teams that have faced the 2012 Mustangs, believe this may be the best Natrona County team ever. They are dominating the 4A classification. The match-ups with other top-five ranked teams have not been close, and the Mustangs have blown other teams out of the stadium. They have outscored their opponents 290 to 43, averaging 48 points while giving up seven, an average margin of victory of 41 points.
Natrona County head coach Steve Harshman is the dean among Wyoming 4A football coaches, with 2012 being his 22nd year as head coach, and his 27th with the Mustangs, overall. Harshman also serves as a member of the Wyoming House of Representatives.
Natrona is 134-58 under his leadership, with accomplishments including six state championship game appearances, four state titles and two perfect seasons. The Mustangs are 6-0, and will host Evanston, then travel to Laramie on Oct. 12, then return home when second-ranked Campbell County, also 6-0, for now, comes to town to end the regular season, on Oct. 19.
Following tonight’s game, which kicks off at 6 p.m., an hour earlier than originally scheduled, the Red Devils return to Kay Fackrell Stadium to host number three Cheyenne East, on Oct.12, before venturing to Laramie to face the Plainsmen and end the regular season.
Evanston has four wins to go against 10 losses, all time, versus the Mustangs, in a series that began in 1993. Tonight’s meeting will mark the ninth game in Casper, with six played in Evanston. The first four meetings were in the 4A and 5A playoffs. The Red Devils gave the Mustangs one of their closest regular season games last year, losing 7-14 in Evanston, as the Mustangs ran the table to a 9-0 regular season finish. They were upset, however, in the semifinals by Cheyenne East.
While the current crop of seniors for both teams have been varsity-eligible, Natrona County is 27-2, finishing 10-1 as state champs in 2010, and 11-1 last season. Against Evanston, the Mustangs’ longest winning-streak is seven games, from 1994-1996 and 2001-2005. Evanston won back-to-back games in 2007 and 2008.
Natrona County has always been in the largest classification, whether it was AA, 4A or 5A, and is, in fact, one of the largest high schools in Wyoming. Since both schools have competed as regular season opponents, beginning with the 2001 season, the teams have met every year, with the exception of 2004. The Mustangs own a 7-3 advantage, and a current two-game win streak, with the last two NC victories taking place in Evanston.
The Red Devils’ last win was Sept. 4, 2009, in Casper, 27-14. That 13-point difference represents Evanston’s largest margin of separation. The two closest games were Evanston’s 13-10 playoff win to get things started in 1993, and the Mustangs coming out on top, 6-2, in a defensive smash-mouth slugfest in Evanston on Sept. 13, 2002.
In terms of blowouts, the Mustangs thundered past Evanston, 49-12, in 2008 at NC, and 51-13, in 2003, a Mustangs state title season, which capped the second perfect season of Harshman’s tenure, at 11-0. That team is regarded as one of the best in Wyoming high school football history. The Mustangs destroyed their competition.
Campbell County came within 14 in the regular season, 21-35, and later lost the state championship, 3-28. No other team got within 37 points of Natrona County in 2003.
Yes, Natrona defeated Evanston 51-13, led by three-time all-state running back J.C. Navarro. They “called off the dogs” in the second half, up 51-0, by halftime.
As thoroughly dominating as the 2003 squad was, this 2012 edition of Mustangs football may be a bit more so. Through the first six games of 2003, Natrona had outscored their opponents, 271-47. Through the first six games of this season, it’s a bit more lopsided, at 290-43.
So, does this year’s team warrant being mentioned in the same breath as the 2003 team, and the perfect-season team of 1999, which Evanston didn’t face? At this point, the answer would have to be “yes.”
“There’s a reason why we play the games,” is often heard in the sporting world. Upsets, even big-time upsets, happen all the time. But what is contributing to Natrona County’s command of the 4A? Why were they the preseason favorite, and have never relinquished their stranglehold?
Numbers, plain and simple, like reports of 180, even 190 kids out for football. Harshman reported 167 in pads, which still averages over 40 players per class, if freshmen are factored in. Compare that to Evanston’s varsity roster of 43, total, comprised of sophomores through seniors. Included among those incredible participation numbers are eight returning all-state selections — Colter Bentley, OL/DL; University of Wyoming-bound Ryan Anaya, TE/LB; Adam Britton, DL; Dan Reese, LB; Brecken Briggs, at large, the NC quarterback in 2012; Josh Flanigan, RB, punter; Austin Ducello, LB; and Isaac Cooper, DB, with four unanimous all-conference selections entering this season. Four of five starting offensive linemen return, along with the entire linebacker core.
The Mustangs are the second-best rushing team in 4A football, averaging 239 per game on the ground, just three yards less than Sheridan’s 242. Flanigan leads the charge, with a 103 yards per game rushing average, quarterback Briggs at about a 56-yard per game clip, and Cameron Fuller, Diamond Smith and Isaac Cooper combining for 60 yards each time out, in the Mustangs’ ground attack.
They are also second-most productive passing team, behind Campbell County, with 163 passing yards each game. Overall, through six games, Natrona County is the second-most prolific offense, with an average of 402 yards per game from the line of scrimmage.
Another phrase tossed around often is, “Defense wins championships.” The Mustangs’ defense is far and away tops in 4A. They’re number one against the run, allowing a paltry 22 yards per outing — no other 4A team gives up less than 114 yards — and held the visiting Rock Springs Tigers to a net of 11 yards, for the entire game, from the line of scrimmage, with 13 yards rushing, and -2 passing. The Mustangs are also only yielding 71 per game through the air. To give some perspective to Natrona’s state-leading average of limiting opposing offenses to just 93 yards of offense per game, the 4A’s next stingiest defense is Cheyenne East. The Thunderbirds allow 282 yards per game.
Part of the reason Natrona is so dominant defensively, without having many players listed in the top 50 in the individual defensive points category of statistical leaders, is because of their time of possession with the football. Their defense stays fresh, because they come onto the field, take care of business and get the ball back for the offense. The Mustangs’ time of possession advantage has to be substantial.
Linebacker Dan Reese is third in all of the 4A with 17.9 defensive points per outing, Thomas Myler is 28th with 10.8, and Greg Lensert and Austin Ducello are 37th and 39th, at 9.2 and 9.0 per game.
Evanston’s Wyatt Day has led the 4A wire to wire, and is still in the top spot with 21.7 defensive points per game, through six of the nine games total. Tyler Stout is ninth with 14.3, Taylor Seimers, 13th, averaging 13.7, with Rusty Crofts, 36th in the top 50 at 9.2.
Evanston’s offensive stats did not change much at all, as against South last week Evanston finished in total yards near their season average, although rushing increased while their passing game decreased. Of the 211 total per game, 123 by way of the ground attack and 88 through the air. Tanner Anthos leads the ground-gainers at 76 yards per game, followed by Batista Covolo and Wyatt Day, at 28 and 22. Matt Johnson is among the top 10 in 4A receiving, and leads Evanston at 58 yards per game.
“Our goal from day one as been to approach every game as if we were going to win it, and do all we can,” Coach Pat Fackrell told the Herald. “If we don’t have that approach, I don’t know why we would even board the bus.”
Fackrell does have tremendous respect for the team his squad will face tonight.
“You watch the team on film and Natrona is a very, very, very good squad,” he said. “They’re big, fast, strong and physical. They play the game they way it’s meant to be played. Coach Harshman has done an outstanding job with that program. It’s easy to see they like playing the game.”
When the Mustangs have the ball, the coach and his staff know what to expect, but also realize how well the Mustangs execute their ball-control offense, a team loaded size, speed, talent and depth.
“They’ll spread it out, using every inch of the field,” Fackrell explained. “They don’t run a lot of different plays, but they show you a lot of different formations. But what they do, they do very well.”
More on Evanston’s game approach from the coach: “It’s a great challenge for our kids to go there to play their best, maybe take advantage of mistakes, get things started in the right direction, and do something no other team in the state has done — go in there and get a win, or play them close.”
If you can manage to corral the Mustangs, what will the Red Devils face when they have possession?
“Defensively, Natrona plays a base 4-4 defense,” according to Fackrell. “They play fast, physical and get after you.”
Injuries are part of football, and Fackrell reports his team is banged up. Is there increased concern, when competing against a bigger, deeper team, especially one the caliber of Natrona this season, of increased risk of injury or sustaining further injury?
“I’m a coach who believes if you’re worried about getting injured, you’re going to get injured,” the coach stated, “because you’re not playing the game hard. We have to play hard and not hold anything back.”
Harshman attributes his team’s success to hard work in the off season, returning experience, and especially to an exceptional group of seniors.
“We saw this class coming since they were little guys,” Harshman said.
Harshman breaks it down further: “And like our 2010 team, we have very good linemen. You always hear about returners in the skill positions, but I think the key is linemen, and we’ve got four of our five offensive line starters back, and really most all of our defense from last year, with an outstanding bunch of linebackers. And again, they’re an exceptional class of kids.”
The coach is not really concerned with homecoming activities this week at NCHS, and the distractions the celebration events can bring, reporting a solid week of practice for his Mustangs. He believes Evanston is comprised of hard-nosed athletes, who fight to the end, and noted while his team holds the overall series advantage and are enjoying the type of year they’ve had so far, “Over the last six years, we’ve had some great battles with Evanston, and we’re three-and-three against each other in that time. We expect another hard-fought effort from the Red Devils. They’re well-coached, and prepare well.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. from the field named in honor of Natrona County High School alumnus and former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. Herald sports editor Mark Madia will have the call, beginning with pre-game coverage, near 5:20 p.m., on 1240 AM KEVA Radio.
Elsewhere in the 4A, the second-ranked Camels host the fourth-ranked Central Indians in Gillette. Number three Sheridan is at home as the Plainsmen of Laramie ride into Broncs territory, the Rock Springs Tigers travel east to face number four Cheyenne East, and Cheyenne South hosts Casper Kelly Walsh.
Two games with big-time implications take place in the region. The Bridger Valley Bowl has Mountain View at top-ranked, arch-rival and undefeated Lyman, an intense rivalry and 2A West Conference showdown each and every year, regardless of team records. The Buffs are currently tied with Lovell and Kemmerer at 3-1, in second place, behind the 4-0 Eagles in the conference standings. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m.
Rich County, Utah
The same start time is set for another big game in Randolph, as the third-ranked Rich Rebels, 5-1 on the season, host the top-ranked Eagles of Duchesne, who are a perfect 6-0, and the two-time defending state champions in Utah’s 1A. A Rebel win would really shake things up and perhaps result in the Rebels becoming the team to beat.
On paper and historically, the game is intriguing, with most of the classification’s teams likely very curious about the outcome.