A lot of things have changed since the start of the 2010 peewee football season in Gillette. But in some ways, they haven’t changed at all.
Even when Mason Hamilton and Blaine Allen were just third graders, they were always playing football together.
“We were at the same elementary school, we were on the same junior football team growing up and the same Sage Valley team,” Hamilton said. “We’ve always been close friends, so weekdays, weekends, nights, we’ve always been out on the field throwing to each other.”
Almost a decade later, they are still throwing partners, but on Friday nights for Thunder Basin High School with Hamilton as the starting quarterback and Allen as his No. 1 receiver.
The two were the only unanimous all-state selections at their position last year. Now they’re back for their senior season in a Bolts uniform and should be the centerpieces for an explosive offense.
Hamilton beat Allen to the varsity squad by almost a full season, splitting time as the starter during the program’s first year. Allen was supposedly not quite ready for varsity then, but a rash of injuries caused him to get some playing time during the 2017 playoffs.
A chance was all Allen needed and the sophomore exploded for more than 100 yards in his first varsity game. Since then, there have been few teams across the state that can slow down the dangerous tandem.
“It’s always been a dream to obviously be on the same varsity team, but to also be the standouts ... it’s cool to see it all come together finally,” Hamilton said.
Out of the top-five passing and receiving performances in 4A last year, Hamilton and Allen lay claim to three of the five in each category. The game that stood out the most was during the regular season match-up with the eventual state champ, Natrona County High School.
The Mustangs edged the Bolts 41-34, but Hamilton and Allen kept it close with their best outing of the season. Hamilton exploded for 375 passing yards and four touchdowns, while Allen manhandled the defense for eight catches, 157 yards and a score.
“They’ve known each other for years, played football together for years, they have good chemistry together,” head coach Trent Pikula said. “With Blaine’s ability to go get the ball — he just has great hands, strong hands — and Mason’s decision making, it allows us to do a lot of things.”
Hamilton isn’t as tall as the prototypical quarterback, standing about 5-feet-10-inches. But Pikula said his velocity and accuracy more than make up for any perceived height deficiency. He finished last season with 27 touchdowns and five interceptions to go with a 240-yard passing average.
Allen had the best view in the house for his best friend’s career year and it just confirmed what he already knew about Hamilton.
“He’s the best quarterback in the state and everyone knows that,” Allen said. “Me and him both have that mindset that we’re the best out there.”
As for Allen, he has everything a quarterback wants in a go-to receiver. Apart from the strong hands Pikula mentioned, Allen has great size at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, and provides Hamilton with the best safety blanket in the state.
Hamilton and Allen finished as the clear No. 1 players at their positions, but the huge individual numbers didn’t produce the postseason results they wanted. The Bolts reached the semifinals, a game where they believed they were the better team, but Sheridan High School took advantage of tough weather conditions to win 14-7.
The loss came on Nov. 2. The Bolts have dealt with the disappointment every day since.
Even though Hamilton and Allen were responsible for much of the success in 2018, they knew if the Bolts were going to take a step forward, the responsibility rested on their shoulders.
“Losing in the semis is nobody’s goal. If you’re going to win a state championship, it starts with us,” Hamilton said. “As leaders, we need to set the tone and be out there every day working.”
That’s exactly what they did over the summer. Pikula praised his quarterback, in particular, for rallying the troops during their vacation.
Since Hamilton is one of two seniors who have played varsity all three years in the program, Pikula said the team really looks up to him. So when the senior QB sent a group text to his receivers over the summer, they usually showed up regardless of the day or time.
No coaches would be there. Just the players, but they treated it like a live practice. With Hamilton running the sessions, Allen said he would throw the ball all over the field and wear down his receivers, but there was never much complaining.
“We had open throwing on Mondays and Wednesdays, but we’d also talk to each other and come out here like every day of the week,” Allen said. “Practice is fun for us, because we love what we’re doing.”
The Bolts already were motivated when they showed up for two-a-days on Aug. 5, but they quickly found that Pikula had cranked it up another level. Everywhere they walked, whether it was into the locker room, down the halls, or into Pikula’s office, the numbers “14-7” were hanging from the walls.
Pikula said his team “truly believed” it would go on to win the title had it beaten Sheridan in the semifinal. Instead, the Bolts were forced to dwell on the losing scoreline all off-season.
“We were so close last year… When we lost that game, it was pretty devastating,” Pikula said. “So I just thought, if you’re truly an athlete or competitor, a 14-7 loss should motivate you to get better — to put everything you’ve got into the season.”
There’s a difference between having a goal to win a state title and knowing it’s within reach. That’s the position the Bolts are in this season, according to Pikula.
One thing is for certain: They have plenty of talent to do it. Almost all the skill positions are returning this year, but the one big area of concern is along the line.
Thunder Basin graduated four starting offensive linemen last year, all of whom earned all-state honors. What’s more, three of the four were also all-state defensive players, which leaves another hole to fill.
The saving grace for the Bolts may be the fact that they won so many blowout games last season, which allowed a lot of JV players to take the field.
Following a good showing at the scrimmage, Pikula is looking at Dillon Bannister, Colton Crowley, Scott O’Dell, Nate Jones and River Brisko as the week one offensive line. There is good size among that group, but experience is what’s lacking.
“Right now, we have five guys that never started a single game last year on the offensive line,” Pikula said. “We practice against a pretty good defense, so it’s kind of been trial by fire.”
The lone returner from last year is Alec Ehrhard, but unfortunately, he is recovering from a meniscus injury. The senior should provide some support when he returns, which is penciled for week two, and he can play all five spots along the line.
As good as the dynamic duo of Hamilton and Allen undoubtedly is, Thunder Basin’s success this year may come down to whether the star quarterback has enough time to throw.