Cheyenne East’s season ended with a 34-31 double-overtime loss to Gillette in the Class 4A semifinals.
The Thunderbirds (8-3) may have ended up short of their ultimate goal, but ninth-year coach Chad Goff deemed the season a success.
“We started the season as a great group of individuals and ended the season as a great team,” Goff said. “We grew a lot. These kids did a lot of things together, spent a lot of time together, created a nice brotherhood, created memories that they’ll have forever and became a nice team.
“… We got as much out of the kids as we could and they gave us as much as they could. High school football requires a lot of things to go your way. All season, we had things go our way but, in that final game, we had some things that hadn’t happened to us all year happen in that game.”
Goff has guided East to a 59-39 record, two state championships and two runner-up finishes during his time on the sideline. The T-Birds’ success has come with a touch of good fortune, the coach said.
They just didn’t get that this season.
“As a program, we’ve been in those sorts of games and come out on the successful side,” Goff said. “This was the first time we’ve haven’t had that one thing where we say, ‘If that wouldn’t have happened, we wouldn’t have won.’ There were some situations in that game that didn’t fall our way and now it’s all in the past.”
Goff did say that, compared to it’s other 10 games, East had an inordinate number of holding calls in the Gillette loss. One of those brought back a game-clinching touchdown.
But those holding calls weren’t all that went wrong that night.
Senior quarterback Tevis Bartlett was caught from behind on a long run and injured his ankle. That kept him from playing safety on Gillette’s game-winning touchdown.
“He usually checks us into the right defenses and we had half our guys running one defense and the other half running another defense because Gillette plays so fast,” Goff said. “They lined up quick and we couldn’t get the check in that we needed. Mistakes were made, but when it boils down to it, we were up 14 points with 10 minutes to go and we should have won it.
“… You can’t overcome those things against a team like Gillette.”
WHAT WORKED WELL?
As Goff said, the T-Birds bonded, overcame injuries and advanced to the state semifinals for the ninth time since 2005.
They also got better as the season went along.
The T-Birds were eighth in Class 4A in total offense after a 27-12 win over Casper Kelly Walsh. They finished the season second. They were fourth in team defense after that Sept. 26 win and still finished second.
The offensive improvements stemmed from getting Bartlett back in the lineup. He was relegated to receiver after re-aggravating a shoulder injury early in the second quarter of a 46-14 loss to Sheridan on Sept. 19. He missed the Kelly Walsh win because Goff held him out to rest his separated shoulders.
“I misinformed everybody,” said Goff, who spent the season saying Bartlett missed the KW game because of an illness. “Everyone was already taking shots at him, I didn’t need them to know that he had two injured shoulders and a sore ankle.”
East was clinging to a lead late in the Kelly Walsh game before scoring a pair of touchdowns to put it out of reach. Bartlett, who was in uniform that night, approached Goff when the game appeared to be in doubt and talked to him about playing.
The coach held strong.
“I said, ‘Get away from me right now. I want you to go in, but we have to find a way to make plays without you,'” Goff said. “The team responded well late in the game. That definitely helped our football team.”
It helped because the T-Birds learned that they didn’t have to lean on the 2013 Gatorade Player of the Year. Bartlett was still going to make plays when he returned, but beating the Trojans proved to them that they didn’t need Bartlett to make every play.
Junior Bayor Hayes played in Bartlett’s place after he was sidelined against Sheridan and for the entire Kelly Walsh game. Hayes was solid against Sheridan (19 of 31 for 237 yards and 2 touchdowns) but struggled against Kelly Walsh (7 for 14 for 40 yards and two interceptions).
Those games gave him a solid foundation for the rest of the season and beyond.
East stuck with a quasi-two-quarterback system even after Bartlett returned and Hayes completed 44 of 74 passes for 533 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions.
“He came in and led his team to a victory (against Kelly Walsh) and that gave him confidence to do some other things throughout the rest of the year and I expect him to have a great year next fall,” Goff said.
Despite missing nearly two full games at quarterback, Bartlett threw for 1,179 yards and nine touchdowns. He also ran for 1,081 yards and 17 scores.
Senior tailback Brad Craft also ran for 1,025 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Teams loaded up near the line of scrimmage trying to slow Bartlett, so getting not one but two 1,000-yard rushers was quite the accomplishment.
“Brad wasn’t really recognized at a state level for that,” Goff said. “He did get an at-large all-state spot, but he didn’t get the recognition that I thought he deserved.”
WHAT NEEDED WORK?
Aside from talking specifically about the semifinal loss, Goff was elusive here.
He also talked about a few things East struggled with early in the season, but had corrected by season’s end.
“Getting that receiving corps on the same page wasn’t easy,” he said. “There were a lot of mistakes early on. We had guys running the wrong routes, not being in the right spot and not blocking for each other. Once they bought in and sold out for each other, our offense opened up.
“After the Sheridan game, we sat down and looked at some things. We had some games where we worked on some situations and found out who we were. The kids did a good job of making those adjustments and improving each week.”
The T-Birds must replace Bartlett, who is a once-in-a-career-type player for a coach. They also have to replace all of their wide receivers, a running back, two defensive linemen, and the entire defensive secondary.
The good news is that East has players it feels confident in.
Junior Quinn Happold was an all-state offensive lineman and an all-conference pick at defensive end. Classmate Jack Danni was an all-state selection at linebacker after averaging a team-best 14.2 defensive points per game and finishing with 89 total tackles (32 solo), two sacks, two breakups and an interception, which he returned for a touchdown.
Junior Joe Helsel returns on the offensive line. East also will have receiver Steven Lahnert back. Lahnert missed all but four games after suffering a lacerated liver taking a hit in East’s second game of the year.
Junior Uriah Gracia did some good things offensively and defensively for East. As a running back, he gained 162 yards and scored three touchdowns on 42 carries. As a safety, he had 30 tackles (11 solo), three pass breakups and two interceptions.
His first touchdown of the season was a 15-yarder on a delayed handoff that ended up being the first touchdown scored in East’s new Okie Blanchard Stadium. He also had an interception a few plays later.
Both of those things nearly didn’t happen, Goff said.
“Some of his touchdowns are because Brad (Craft’s) shoe came untied,” Goff said. “Uriah’s touchdown against South wasn’t expected. Brad’s shoe came untied and he was over tying it when Uriah made three jump cuts and scored.”
Gracia could be the T-Birds’ lead back in 2015. He also could get competition from junior Ricky Garnica-Cole, who tore his left anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in a 52-28 win at Evanston on Oct. 16. Garnica-Cole gained 156 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries as a fullback.
Goff expects to have at least 25 seniors next season, as well as a host of other experienced players.
“Our sophomore class isn’t very big, but they’re tough,” the coach said. “There aren’t many teams that can travel 15 kids to Gillette for a game and win. This team did. They’ll mesh well with the seniors.
“These kids know how to win football games.”