Mother nature had complete disregard for the 7 p.m. kickoff time Friday night between the Class 4A No. 1-ranked Thunder Basin Bolts and No. 3 Natrona County Mustangs. About 12 minutes before kickoff, dark, ominous clouds produced lighting and delayed kickoff for more than 45 minutes.
The lightning continued to strike East of the stadium for almost the entire first half, but the Bolts on the field were held in check. Natrona produced a stifling shutout through two quarters and jumped out to a 16-0 lead.
But it was the lightning on the field in the second half that sparked an epic Bolts comeback for a 20-16 win and preserve the team’s perfect record at 6-0.
It was also a little bit of repeat history, as Thunder Basin also was down by 16 points in the second half before a comeback win over Cheyenne East earlier this season.
Sparked by a 95-yard Isaiah Halliburton touchdown return to start the third quarter and capped by a 25-yard scoring burst from Jaxon Pikula late in the fourth, TBHS rattled off 20 straight second-half points in a dominating second half.
“I don’t know why we keep doing this to ourselves,” TBHS coach Trent Pikula said to his team after the game. “But it shows the type of character and heart that you guys have.”
The Bolts came out with “zero energy” to start the game, but “that’s why you play two halves,” Pikula said.
Just as the pregame adrenaline rush was taking effect, the teams had to promptly return to the locker room and it was the Mustangs who reacted better in the first half.
At halftime, Pikula said he challenged the Bolts — especially his senior offensive linemen — and the players finally found their motivation. Then on the opening kickoff for the second half, the odds of winning increased dramatically thanks to Halliburton.
The sophomore caught the second-half kickoff near the 5-yard line, chose a hole along the right hash and finally found open space ahead of him near the 50. Nobody could catch the explosive return man and the momentum-swinging play that cut the deficit to 16-7.
“I’m just trying to go out there and make a big play, not for myself, but for my team,” Halliburton said. “I just wanted to come out in the second half and be completely different. I went out, made a play and I think that really boosted the team up. … It actually means a lot to me.”
With the offense yet to score, the pressure was on Thunder Basin’s defense to keep the deficit right where it was. It answered the call just like it’s done all season, with Caleb Driskill and Dalton McInerney leading the charge.
“Between Caleb Driskill and Dalton McInerney, I think they were in on every tackle,” coach Pikula said. “They just played their hearts out and just kept giving our offense a chance to find a groove and we finally found it.”
The Bolts came up with two stops in a row, intermixed with another punt by the TBHS offense before putting a drive together for the first time. A 9-yard catch near the end zone by Blaine Allen set up a crucial fourth and goal from the 1. Jaxon Pikula busted over the goal line for his first touchdown of the night.
A missed extra point kept the Mustang lead at 16-13 with 2:02 left in the third quarter, but Thunder Basin now had every bit of momentum. It seemed a comeback was definitely in the works, but the Bolts didn’t pull ahead until there were just four minutes left in the game.
Nothing came easy for TBHS, which was highlighted as Allen’s would-be touchdown catch was ruled out when his dive for the pylon dislodged the ball. That forced quarterback Mason Hamilton to convert a fourth down pass to Warren Carr. Jaxon Pikula busted through a huge hole two plays later for the game-winning 25-yard touchdown to make it 20-16.
“It felt pretty good. It was a cool touchdown,” Jaxon Pikula said. “(The hole was) pretty big. I just had to make a safety miss and do the rest and get in the end zone.”
The victory moves the Bolts to 6-0 on the season and gives them a sweep over the rest of what coach Pikula calls “the top four” in Class 4A: TBHS, Natrona, Sheridan and Cheyenne East.
With wins over all three, the Bolts are in complete control of their playoff destiny and have the meat of their schedule behind them. However, the one major concern is the slow starts that have haunted TBHS this season.
“They were playing their game (in the first half) and we just weren’t playing ours yet. We needed to wake up. We need to quit doing that. It seems like every game we want to start slow,” the coach said. “We were sleeping basically in the first half. But it definitely feels like you just played a full game against a good team and you came out on top.”
Thunder Basin will put its undefeated record on the line next Friday at 6 p.m. as it travels to Rock Springs.
Rough first half
TBHS only had one turnover in the game, but it came on its third offensive play of the opening quarter.
Hamilton tried to float a ball over a defender on third down, but Natrona’s Dhillon Rehman picked it off at Thunder Basin’s 39-yard line. Seven plays later, NC quarterback Harrison Taubert’s tough five-yard touchdown run gave the Mustangs the 7-0 lead with 5:03 on the clock.
The issues continued for the TBHS offense for the remainder of the half, as Natrona was consistently bringing heavy pressure. Thunder Basin’s offensive line didn’t handle it well — Hamilton was under constant fire in the pocket and holding penalties also stopped the momentum multiple times.
One of those holds halted the Bolts’ second drive, and stuck in no man’s land near NC’s 40 and without it’s starting punter, they failed to convert on 4thand 25.
The Mustangs took advantage of the field position and capitalized again a couple minutes into the second quarter. Taubert capped another 39-yard drive with a perfect pass over Tanner Richards in defense and into the arms of Roman Overstreet in the corner of the end zone.
NC’s 14-0 lead grew to 16-0 a few minutes later after three and outs from both teams. Natrona’s punt pinned the Bolts on their own 2-yard line, and with how much pressure Hamilton had been under, that was a big cause for concern.
Sure enough, the Mustangs were celebrating a safety on the next play. Hamilton didn’t help his cause, holding onto the ball for too long, and he was caught from behind as he tried to escape the pocket.
“First half, offensively we played as bad we could play and there was no emotion,” coach Pikula said. “Come off the field after a three and out or after the interception and it was like ‘ho-hum.’”
The Bolts special teams play has been a big concern for coach Pikula this season and it didn’t help that junior kicker Garner Gauthier was out with a back injury Friday night. That left freshman kicker Nick Black as the team’s starter.
Pikula gave a special shoutout to his special teams following the Natrona win, though. On top of Halliburton’s big kickoff return, he thought the Bolts were outstanding all night in that phase of the game.
“Our special teams really showed up. Obviously the kickoff return was huge. That changed the momentum of the game right there, but our kickoff team all night was just hammering those guys,” coach Pikula said. “Nick Black — he’s a freshman, never kicked in a varsity game and I just thought he did an amazing job.”