With all the uncertainty of a COVID-19-restricted football season, local high school students, parents and supporters were uncertain if the cross-town clash between the Thunder Basin and Campbell County high school football teams would happen by the time the fifth game of the season rolled around.
Now with both teams coming off their first month of games, the Bolts and Camels are ready for their all-Gillette showcase.
This will be the fifth game between the two Gillette schools since Thunder Basin opened in 2017, with the last coming in the first round of last year’s playoffs. The Bolts are 5-0 against the Camels.
Thunder Basin, undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 4A at the time, ended up moving on past the Camels 24-20 in that playoff game, but Campbell County played well above what was expected of a 2-7 team.
Last season’s playoff loss was the best CCHS head coach Andrew Rose had seen his team play and said it was a glimpse of what’s to come for CCHS football.
Campbell County players, especially seniors, used last year’s playoff loss to Thunder Basin as momentum going into this season. While the Camels have stumbled into a 1-3 start, the team hopes to revisit that playoff game to boost confidence going into Friday. They also have momentum having dominated Cheyenne South on Friday 49-0.
“We didn’t win that game against Thunder Basin but we played really well. I felt like that was a huge step for this program,” said senior Xander Beeson. “We really needed that after the last couple of years. I’m not going to hang my head on that loss, but I am going to use that as motivation.”
Most of the players on both squads have been playing football together or against each other for nearly a decade, said CCHS quarterback Kaden Race.
“It’s definitely always fun to play those guys from Thunder Basin,” Race said. “I think last year kind of showed that we can hang around with those better teams and we just need to try and not do too much.”
Trent Pikula, head coach at Thunder Basin, said that while Friday is a rivalry game for both squads, his team’s approach is to focus on the game as if it’s just another Friday night.
“I think the town probably plays more into it than we do,” Pikula said. “For us, it’s another football game. Obviously, I’d be lying if I said the kids don’t look forward to this because it’s fun to play your in-town rival. When you play your cross-town rival it’s always a big game.
“But as far as Thunder Basin football, this is another Friday night for us and it’s a team coming into our stadium. It’s our job to play the best we can possibly play and get a win, so we’re going to approach it as if we’re playing anybody else.”
The Camels will go into Friday with a chip on their shoulder, Rose said.
“Last year, (Thunder Basin) referred to themselves as the football school in Gillette and I don’t agree with that. I take that to heart,” Rose said. “It’s not just a title for them to have. To come out and say something like that is demeaning to us.”
TBHS senior Brody Richardson, who was a catcher on the American Legion Post 42 Roughriders baseball team this summer, took two years off from football and will play Campbell County for the first time since his freshman year.
He will line up opposite his baseball teammate Race, whom he caught for while Race was on the mound for the Roughriders. Race will be at quarterback for Campbell County while Richardson will be a linebacker for Thunder Basin.
“It’ll be fun to go compete against them,” Richardson said. “There will probably be a little smack talk going on.”
First win, first loss
Thunder Basin (3-1) is coming off its first loss of the season after a 38-26 loss at Cheyenne Central. The Bolts went into the game ranked No. 2 in the WyoPrep.com Coaches and Media Football Rankings while the Indians (4-0) were ranked No. 1.
After leading 20-17 at the half, Thunder Basin High School gave up 14 points early in the third quarter off back-to-back turnovers to relinquish the lead and momentum.
“Those turnovers took the momentum away from us and we gave it right back to them,” Pikula said. “They made a couple big plays early in the second half and we didn’t respond.”
After falling behind 31-20 less than halfway through the third quarter, the Bolts pulled back to within six points at 31-26 on a 12-yard Jaxon Pikula run to cap a long Thunder Basin drive.
But after the Bolts pinned Central on its own 1-yard line on a great punt, the Central offense and quarterback Andrew Cummins took over the game.
Cummins led the Indians on a 99-yard drive that plowed through 15 minutes and 22 seconds of clock and put Central ahead 38-26 with 4:37 left to play.
“We had a lot of third downs but we just couldn’t get off the field,” Pikula said. “Any time that happens it puts a lot of pressure on your defense and the exhaustion adds up.
“And it also keeps some of your best players on the sideline, which was pretty key for them to win the football game.”
Thunder Basin quarterback Ryan Baker marched the Bolts back down the field to attempt a comeback, but the drive stalled out at the Central 5-yard line with 1:12 to play. All that was left was three kneel-downs by Central.
The win means Cheyenne Central will likely retain its No. 1 ranking as the only undefeated team left in Class 4A. The Bolts will have to wait and see if the loss will affect their No. 2 ranking in the WyoPrep football poll.
“Last year we were the undefeated team in the championship game and Sheridan came in with one loss and beat us,” Pikula said. “This isn’t the end of our season.”
Across town in Cheyenne on the same night, Campbell County earned its first victory on the season by beating Cheyenne South 49-0. The win was the Camels first road win in four years, since before the opening of Thunder Basin.
“It felt great,” Beeson said. “It was a win that we needed and it felt good to run up the score and do what other teams have been doing to us to somebody else.”
Junior Will Miller led a punishing ground game for the Camels, finding the end zone three times.
“Will was good. He had a lot of good vision touches where he got to do some cut-backs and had to improvise,” Rose said. “He can trust his offensive line and that’s the biggest thing, that people are going to trust each other to do their jobs.”
It was a game of firsts for both teams, as Campbell County scored its first win of the season while also having the dubious honor of being the first team this season forced to punt against Cheyenne South.
Although on the wrong end of weekly blowout losses, Friday was the first time this season the Bison were shut out. And the 49 points allowed to the Camels was still more than 11 points shy of their average of allowing opponents 60.3 points a game.
“It’s a better feeling at the end of the game when you’re winning,” Rose said. “I thought our kids played really hard and they played with a lot of heart and with a little more confidence.”
Campbell County and Thunder Basin kick off at 7 p.m. Friday at TBHS.