by nathan oster
For most of the season, Wheatland was the top ranked team in 2A.
The Bulldogs made their case for that Friday night, whipping the Greybull Buffs 40-0 in one of the two semifinal games played that night in the 2A ranks. They will face Glenrock, a 13-10 overtime winner over Lovell, in the state championship game on Friday.
The Buffs saw their season end on the cusp of the title game for the fourth time in the past seven seasons. They went to Wheatland seeking the school’s first trip to the big game since 1983. It wasn’t to be.
“They dominated us in just about every facet of the game,” said Coach Marty Wrage, who guided the Buffs to an 8-2 finish in his second season at the helm. “They were big, physical, had a lot of seniors and veteran kids … it certainly showed.”
The Buffs, who had encountered bus trouble on the way to the game, started slowly. A fumble on their second play from scrimmage gave Wheatland a short field, and the Bulldogs quickly took advantage of the miscue. Jacob Ward, a junior running back, scored on a 2-yard run at the 10:13 mark, making it 6-0.
Neither team scored again in the quarter. The Buffs were unable to move the ball, and while the Bulldogs did enjoy some success, their best scoring threat after their initial touchdown was thwarted by a Cade Dooley interception.
Wheatland was inside the Greybull 10-yard line when the second quarter began and on the first play from scrimmage, junior Preston Gunter hit paydirt from 5 yards out. With the two-point conversion, the Buffs trailed 14-0.
But like they’d done so many times during the regular season, they were ready with a response. Needing a drive, they put one together on the back of Dawson Forcella. Runs of 31, 11 and 6 yards, in succession, by the junior running back and another one covering 6 yards by Dawson McEwan, combined to put the Wheatland defense on its heels.
Eventually the Buffs made it to the Wheatland 1-yard line and had a first and goal situation. But they couldn’t capitalize, turning the ball over on downs after a bad snap cost them valuable yardage and two other running plays were bottled up by the Wheatland defense.
“It was a real positive deal for us putting together a drive like we did,” said Wrage. “But I think that when we didn’t get it in, it was a real shock to the kids.”
The Bulldogs found the scoring column again when, with 3:15 to play before half, quarterback Daniel Chesser hit Kyle Pollock on a play covering 61 yards, making the score 20-0. A 1 yard run by Ward with just 40 seconds to play before half upped that lead to 26-0. Making matters worse, the Buffs lost two-way standout Dawson Forcella to a concussion late in the second quarter. A big part of both their offensive and defensive game plans, Forcella did not return.
Greybull threatened to score only one other time in the contest, pushing the ball inside the Wheatland 20, before that drive, like the first, stalled. It was that kind of night for the visitors, who finished the game with just five first downs, 45 rushing yards on 32 attempts and 17 passing yards — all season lows.
Wrage called it “a tough matchup” for his team. “It’s hard to get a real sense on film because they dominated so many of the games that they played. We work on a lot of screens (during the week in practice) but some of those were even blown up. We tried to be sound, to stay with the stuff that worked all year for us, but it was just a tough time to be playing them, when they are peaking like that.”
Wheatland finished with 249 rushing yards and another 197 through the air, for a total of 446.
“The biggest thing that stood out, was just how good up front they were,” said Wrage. “Unless you get a lot of turnovers off them, it’s going to be a tough battle for anyone. Our line play had been a strength all year, but they got to us, and controlled one of the strongest units of our team.”
While it was a disappointing ending, the Buffs had a season to remember. They won their first seven and only an answered fourth-down prayer prevented them from finishing the season unbeaten and wrapping up home field for the first two rounds of the playoffs. The sting of that loss was erased the following week, when the Buffs beat Big Horn to make the final four.
“I felt like we exceeded all our expectations,” said Wrage. “The kids worked so hard. They were such a focused group. We had a lot of young players, and they really matured this year as football players.”
Wrage said he received a nice compliment from Wheatland’s head coach, who was a player on a team Wrage coached against in Nebraska.
“He said, ‘You guys are right in the place we were last year.’ They had run into an experienced Mountain View team late in the year and Big Horn beat them twice (including 28-21 in the semifinals). But there are a lot of similarities between what they were last year and what we were this year.”
The Buffs will lose six seniors to graduation. Wrage credited the group as a whole, noting that they didn’t receive a lot of varsity playing time in their freshman and sophomore years but put in the work to improve — in the weight room, going to football camps and being good teammates.
“They led by example,” he said.
Wheatland 40, Greybull 0
W — Ward 2 yard run.
W — Gunter 5 yard run (Chesser run).
W — Pollock 61 yard pass from Chesser.
W — Ward 3 yard run.
W — Madsen 25 yard pass from Chesser (Hanks run).
W — Willis 22 yard run (Hanks run).
RUSHING — Wheatland 38-249; Greybull 32-45 (Riley Hill 9-(-32), Dawson Forcella 10-61, Dawson McEwan 11-14, Zack Keisel 2-2).
PASSING — Wheatland 8-of-19 for 197 yards; Greybull 4-of-21 for 17 yards.
RECEIVING — Greybull: Jordan Jackson 2-10, Dawson Forcella 2-17.
DEFENSIVE STANDOUTS — Cade Dooley was the statistical leader, tallying five tackles and an interception for 15 defensive points. Zack Keisel, with seven solo tackles, was next in line with 14 points. Others in double digits included Brayan Castro (13 points, on six solo tackles and one assisted tackle) and Jose Carmona (11 points, on four solo tackles and one assisted tackle). Lane Nielsen added a sack and Jordan Jackson a fumble recovery.