Distractions are constantly on the horizon for senior starting quarterbacks with popularity and high expectations. But for those who have the talent to play in college, deciding the next step in their careers might top the list.

That’s what Thunder Basin High School’s Mason Hamilton has been contending with following a junior season in which he was the only unanimous all-state QB in Class 4A Wyoming football.

The pressure was on Hamilton’s shoulders more than ever entering the 2019 season, which many predicted to include a run at the 4A state championship. However, while the Bolts (7-0) are on track to be the No. 1 team heading into the playoffs, their star quarterback hasn’t been putting up the same staggering numbers as last year.

“You don’t know what coaches are watching what game and how closely, so you’re going out trying not to make a mistake every game,” Hamilton said. “You’re trying to play your best, but you’re not able to play your best because you’re putting so much pressure on yourself.”

Hamilton has contended with a reshuffled and largely inexperienced offensive line this season, which has been a big change after graduating four all-staters last year.

“A lot of different variables” have fed into some of the offensive struggles this year, Hamilton said, including senior running back Tyson Edwards going down with an ACL injury.

However, the pressure to impress also has been a factor. Just knowing that each performance could affect his college recruiting has been wearing on the senior QB. He is still the No. 2 passer in the state, but his 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions through seven games don’t quite compare to his 31-6 mark last season.

A big part of his stress ended last week, though, when Hamilton committed to Chadron State College in Nebraska.

“It was a huge weight off my shoulders. You don’t have to worry about impressing anybody anymore,” Hamilton said. “Now I know where I’m going. My decision is made. I’m excited for it.”

Being a college quarterback has been his goal for a long time, and Hamilton started building highlight tapes for colleges when he became the starter as a sophomore. He said without having big schools in his backyard, all that work was necessary to “get my name out there.”

Hamilton kept his options open for most of the process, but Chadron State was always high on the list. His father, Jeff, was an assistant coach there, and an instant connection was struck when current coach, Jay Long, started recruiting him.

It began his junior season and it didn’t take long before Hamilton was making an unofficial visit to Chadron later that year. He felt like he was already a part of the program when he was there, because that’s exactly how the coaching staff treated him.

Chadron State’s track record and location were the other two main factors that went into Hamilton’s decision. He wanted to go to a competitive school and Chadron checked that box, but he also wanted to live the right distance away from home.

“It wasn’t in Gillette’s backyard, but it wasn’t like a six-, seven-, eight-hour drive to get there, either,” Hamilton said. “I’ll be able to come home and hang out with my families on the weekends, watch some Thunder Basin games on Friday nights, stuff like that.”

Several larger schools backed off Hamilton because of his 5-foot-10 or 5-foot-11 size, TBHS coach Trent Pikula said. But that hasn’t been an issue for Chadron in the past. While former Campbell County High School QB Dalton Holst has seen success for the Eagles the last few years at around 6-foot-3, they have a history of success with smaller guys under center.

“They have had quarterbacks that are 5-9 and 5-10 and they just did amazing things with those guys,” Pikula said. “They’re a team that doesn’t look at their quarterback needing to be this giant, so I think he’s going to fit in there well.

“Because of his work ethic and his desire to be a good football player, he’ll have success. I think Chadron got a good one when they signed him.”

Hamilton will likely redshirt his freshman year behind Holst, but that’s a long way off. For now, it’s time to focus on Thunder Basin Bolts football for five more games.

With two sons who already went through the recruiting process, Pikula understands only too well what Hamilton was going through for the first six weeks of the season.

“It’s tough for the kids, because every Friday they know they need to perform because there’s possibly going to be a coach there,” Pikula said. “There’s a lot of stress to it when you’re 17, 18 years old and you’re trying to not only win the game for your team, but you’re also trying to do things that are going to look good on film.”

When Hamilton committed, Pikula texted him and said, “Now let’s just worry about playing football,” which is exactly what his quarterback had in mind.

“Now I can focus on the team and going and winning that ’chip,” Hamilton said.

Next up

Hamilton threw for 178 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions last week during his first game after committing. It was a 24-14 comeback win over Rock Springs, which sets up a chance to clinch the No. 1 playoff ranking this week against Casper Kelly Walsh.

Although the win over the Tigers preserved Thunder Basin’s undefeated record and No. 1 ranking in the WyoPreps Coaches and Media poll, Pikula demanded more from his team this week. Competition in practice was taken to the next level, with up-downs being used as punishment.

“It was extremely difficult,” Pikula said on Wednesday. “We had a real serious conversation Monday about our intensity level.”

The Bolts are facing a KW team that couldn’t get out of its own way at the start of the season, but has shown growth with its new coach as of late. Pikula thought that turnovers within the option offense was the main issue early.

The Trojans are in a four-team battle for the final two playoff positions. A win would “make their season,” Pikula said, which is why he expects a fired up KW squad for Friday’s 6 p.m. game.

However, the Bolts are again focused on themselves and finding a way to start the game fast. Four of their seven victories this season have been comebacks and Pikula said establishing some offensive success on the first drive would be a big step in the right direction.

He doesn’t necessarily need to see his team score on the opening possession, but he definitely wants to see a couple first downs at the least to breed some confidence moving into the rest of the game.

“I just want to go out and execute early in the game. That’s what we’ve been trying to do,” Pikula said. “We really want to come out and assert ourselves as an offense in the first quarter. I don’t care if we’re throwing the ball or running the ball. It really doesn’t matter to me.”

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