JACKSON, Wyo. — The Jackson Broncs’ season came to an end Friday night at a place where success has been hard to find through the decades. Jackson put up a fight but ultimately fell to the Star Valley Braves 42-21 in the semifinal round of the 3A playoffs.
Friday’s game began with plenty of drama as Jackson coaches held their players from the field until minutes before the coin toss, choosing instead to take warmup at a nearby undisclosed location. Many Braves fans in the stands were wondering, as were the officials, whether Jackson was going to show or not. But at 5:52 p.m., the bus pulled up and the visiting team took the field.
All-new game plan
The first half was all about momentum swings and adjustments. Both teams tore a chunk of pages out of their season’s playbook in order to throw off their opponents. With both teams playing their 11th game of the season, there were few secrets about offensive tendencies and who would be the guy to stop.
Jackson, for its part, came out with a completely different look. Rather than the spread offense coach David Joyce had been running all season—with three wide receivers—the Broncs came out running a ‘heavy’ package—tightly bunched with Brody Hasenack taking a bulk of the shotgun snaps and running option handoffs to Jeydon Cox.
The Braves had obviously never seen the look before on film and were perplexed for a majority of the first half trying to identify where Cox was coming from or whether it was Hasenack instead who was the ball carrier.
It was a clever way to disguise runs designed for Cox. He had 170 yards on 33 carries in the first half alone where Star Valley had shut down the 3A Offensive Player of the Year at the teams’ last meeting on October 11. Cox finished with 213 yards on 53 carries for the night—good enough, it would appear, to make him the first Wyoming back to gain 2,000 yards on the ground in two consecutive seasons.
The different wrinkle allowed Jackson to get Cox yardage and eat up clock but it also made the Broncs a bit one-dimensional. Without a passing attack, Star Valley creeped its secondary closer and closer to the line of scrimmage. QB Sadler Smith attempted just one pass in the first half. That was intercepted.
The Braves offense also had a few tricks up its sleeve. Rather than pound the ball up the middle with RJ Cazier, Star Valley head coach McKay Young was anything but conservative. The Braves got backup QB and flanker back Dean Shaw involved early and often. The speedy Shaw burned the Broncs defense a few times on pitch and passes when Shaw was lined up as the second man in the ‘I’ rather than Cazier.
Shaw would take the pitch and instead of running up the middle behind the block of fullback David Castillo, Shaw found gigantic wide receiver Chase Merrell open for big plays.
Credit Jackson on the coverage. Corner Peter Goettler was draped all over Merrell on both big catches—either of which looked like a jump ball that were either an interception or reception depending on who came up with the ball when the two players separated after going to the ground. Both times it was Merrell.
Seesaw battle through the first two quarters
Back and forth the teams went in the first half with each team taking turns converting on big fourth down tries or getting stopped by the defense. Momentum tossed one way then the other along with the score.
The Braves opened the scoring with a touchdown but Jackson responded with two of their own to take a 14-7 lead at the end of the 1st quarter. Star Valley tied things back up at 14 before the first half ended.
Star Valley began to assert itself physically in the second half as they’ve done all year. Cazier got more involved in the game plan and the Braves defense started throw their weight around. Wideout Evan Brunner was pasted on two separate occasions (he dropped the first pass and hung on the next time but paid the price).
Before long, the wheels came off for the Broncs in the 3rd quarter. Forced to punt for the first time in the game, Joyce turned to Cox to do the kicking with regular punter AJ McCool limited by a knee injury. Cox kicked a line drive straight into the onrushing Braves where the kick was blocked.
Hasenack received a stinger in the 3rd quarter and was unable to return. That left out the new game plan package for the Broncs and they had to return to their old play-calling.
The Broncs were able to post only one more score as the Braves pulled away in the second half.
For Jackson, the season ends once again in the semifinals with a 7-4 record; one loss more than last year’s 8-3 finish. The Braves move on to the state championship to face the Powell Panthers, who pulled off the upset over Cody, 20-13.
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