Not many expected to hear the words “we’ve got ourselves a game” at halftime Friday night of the first-round high school playoff playoff game between the No. 1-seeded Thunder Basin Bolts and the No. 8 Campbell County Camels.
But that was what fans were saying as the teams trotted to the locker rooms with Thunder Basin, which beat CCHS 51-14 in their first meeting this year, only leading by three points, 17-14.
The second half was a dog fight as well with neither team scoring until Jaxon Pikula finally scored a touchdown for TBHS to take a 24-14 lead with 2:54 left in the fourth quarter.
Even then, Campbell County wouldn’t quit.
Quarterback Kaden Race hit Tanner Hilliard for a 60-yard touchdown with 1:40 on the clock. The Bolts were finally able to take a deep breath when they covered the ensuing onside kick to help secure the 24-20 win.
“It was tough. They played well. They played like they had nothing to lose,” Bolts coach Trent Pikula said. “They hit us in the mouth a few times and I don’t know that we responded very well. Turned the ball over way too many times.
“This is playoff football. One point or 40 points, it doesn’t matter.”
The Bolts had a fast start despite not playing their best football. Campbell County’s opening three-and-out drive only lasted 52 seconds before TBHS took the ball straight up the field for the first touchdown.
Bolts starting running back Pikula was a workhorse on the drive. After passes on the first three plays, he carried the ball four straight times for 42 yards and plowed into the end zone from a yard out for the 7-0 lead with 9:23 left.
The Camels answered with a methodical scoring drive. Race provided the spark with 52 yards rushing and running back Will Miller finished off a 14-play drive with a 5-yard touchdown run to knot the score at 7 with 2:30 remaining in the first quarter.
The possession spanned nearly seven minutes and the Camels clearly had TBHS off balance with outside zone running and quarterback runs.
“They didn’t adjust and we saw it, so we just kept going with what was working,” CCHS coach Andrew Rose said. “We beat them with our feet and held on to the ball as much as we possibly could.”
Thunder Basin slowly started to lose its rhythm after that long Camels drive. The next drive stalled, despite a 39-yard pass to Blaine Allen, and an incomplete pass on fourth down gave the ball back to CCHS on the final play of the first period.
Up to that point, Camels star running back Vijay Pitter still hadn’t seen the field on offense after an injury last week. The state’s leading rusher came in for Campbell County’s first drive of the second quarter and finished the game, but TBHS held him to just 25 total rushing yards.
The third Thunder Basin drive started with a rare run by quarterback Mason Hamilton and he found open space on the read option. However, cheers from the Bolts fans quickly turned to cheers for the cross-town Camels.
CCHS sophomore Brady Tompkins met Hamilton after a 13-yard gain, stood him straight up and then ripped the ball out of the quarterback’s arms as he went to the ground. Tompkins also scooped the football off the turf and sprinted 60 yards before getting caught at the 7-yard line.
One play later, the Camels were running off the field and celebrating their first-ever lead over the Bolts. The touchdown came on a direct snap to Miller and he slithered through a crease to the left for a 7-yard score to make it 14-7 with 9:23 left in the half.
“We proved to them we’re a force to be reckoned with, so I’m beyond pleased,” Rose said. “You would not think that this is a one (seed) versus an eight seed game.”
The CCHS lead only lasted about 2:20, though, as Hamilton put the fumble behind him on the next drive and threw a 67-yard bomb to receiver Tanner Richards. On the scoring play, the Bolts were in a position that became familiar throughout the game — third and long — but a great play call and a busted coverage by the Camels allowed the seven points.
Campbell County compounded the error in coverage with a turnover on the next drive. The Camels offense was in Bolts territory when Race rolled out and threw it right into the chest of Thunder Basin’s Colton Randall, and he streaked all the way into the end zone.
The score was taken off the board because of a block in the back right at the end of the return. That haunted the Bolts for much of the game, because they had to settle for a 25-yard Garner Gauthier field goal after a dropped pass in the end zone.
That brought the score to 17-14 with 4:32 left in a hard-fought first half. Neither team managed points during their final drives, which was a recurring theme for the rest of the game.
There were only two outcomes to the third-quarter possessions — either a turnover on downs for Thunder Basin or a three and out for Campbell County. The Camels were bending, while the Bolts weren’t giving an inch defensively, but both methods worked to keep the other off the scoreboard.
A dropped pass on fourth down ended Thunder Basin’s opening drive of the third quarter, but it was the next possession that rankled coach Pikula. The Bolts ran 14 plays to methodically move the ball down the field, but a false start halted the momentum and an incompletion on fourth down meant no points.
On the other side the of the ball, the Camels were stuck in the mud against the TBHS defense. They totaled just 12 yards in the third quarter and only had 34 before the long scoring play right before the end of regulation.
Thunder Basin seemed on the brink of scoring on back-to-back drives to start the fourth quarter, getting inside the CCHS 35-yard line each time. Both ended on attempted deep throws, as Dawsen Hayden and Zach Wilcox each picked off Hamilton to give the Camels the ball back.
The interception by Wilcox featured a midair battle for the ball. Allen made a good effort to come back for the underthrown pass, reaching over Wilcox’s helmet to get his hands on it. But Wilcox ripped the ball down away from the 6-foot-3 Allen at the 5-yard line with 4:48 left in the game.
It wasn’t the first time Wilcox has dealt with Allen’s attempts to make athletic catches.
“Sophomore year, me and Blaine were always at each others throats with out-competing each other,” said Wilcox, who used to attend Thunder Basin. “I knew he was going to reach over and grab, so I had to pull in quick. Otherwise he would’ve just caught it and it would’ve been a touchdown.”
That set up the biggest drive of the season for the Camels and certainly the biggest decision of the season for coach Rose. CCHS found itself in a fourth-and-7 situation at its own 8-yard line with 3:50 on the clock and Rose elected to go for it.
Miller got 3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage before he met TBHS senior Caleb Driskill, who made one of his 17 tackles to stop him short. Rose said he had to go for it because the Bolts had been moving the ball even if they weren’t scoring. The Camels couldn’t afford to give up a first down with little time on the clock and just one timeout.
The Bolts made the Camels pay less than a minute later. They handed the ball up the gut to Jaxon Pikula three times in a row and he chewed up the 11 yards to take the 24-14 lead with 2:54 remaining.
“It’s nice that we can establish a run game,” Jaxon Pikula said. “I love my offensive linemen to death. … I have to go through the trenches just like they do and they make it easy for me. I owe them everything.”
Campbell County made one last-ditch effort with the 60-yard bomb to Hilliard with 1:40 on the clock. He got behind the defense and Race launched the pass on the run for the TD, but the Camels couldn’t recover the ensuing onside kick. Jaxon Pikula ran for one more TBHS first down, and that called the ball game.
The mood among the Bolts was subdued for a team that just won a playoff game against their cross-town foe. There wasn’t a lot of celebrating. There weren’t even many smiles.
Thunder Basin is moving on to the state semifinal against Cheyenne East. In that regard, it’s mission accomplished, but the Bolts need better execution with everything on the line to advance to the state title game.
“A win’s a win, but you’d like to see the team play better,” Richards said. “Honestly, kudos to them coming out and playing their butts off. They played a great game.”
It took a playoff football game for the rivalry to emerge between the Bolts and Camels. Things started getting chippy, especially in the second half, with players from both sides looking over their shoulders to get a a few more words in as they returned to their huddles.
However, once the game was over, even the Camels had reconciled with the loss.
“I just hope the best for Thunder. I hope they bring home the ship after that,” Camels defensive back Zach Wilcox said.
Thunder Basin will host Cheyenne East on Friday in the state semifinals at 6 p.m. The Thunderbirds are coming off an impressive 35-14 win over Natrona County in their opening-round game.