The Bolts were a breath away from winning the state football championship on a snowy eve at War Memorial Stadium last November.
Naturally, the only goal for the Thunder Basin football team this season is getting back to the title game, said senior tight end Dyse Shepherd.
Despite losing senior talent at basically every level of the lineup, Thunder Basin hasn’t missed much of a beat three games into the 2020 campaign.
Some of the holes left by graduating seniors, like 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Caleb Driskill, simply can’t be plugged. But coach Trent Pikula said the Bolts are already looking better in some areas compared to last year’s runner-up team.
“Defensively, obviously with Driskill in the middle, we were probably a little more established at this point last season,” Pikula said. “But there are phases of the game that are much better, much farther along than last year.”
Friday night, the TBHS defense struggled to figure out Cheyenne South’s triple option offense during the first drive. But it was lights out the rest of the way, only allowing 45 yards the rest of the first half.
On the other side of the ball, the Bolts punished South on every opportunity when the starters were in the game. They scored on their first seven drives, including three touchdowns from senior running back Jaxon Pikula.
Pikula, who is playing his third year of varsity football, has been a workhorse for Thunder Basin during the first three games. With the departure of an all-state quarterback and two all-state receivers from last year’s team, Pikula is counted on to build upon his nearly 1,200 rushing yards as a junior.
He’s stepped into that role as well as anyone could have expected, piling up 573 all-purpose yards and eight touchdowns during Thunder Basin’s 3-0 start.
The rest of the team has bought into the success on the ground, even if it means fewer targets for some of them.
Shepherd, who is drawing attention from the University of Wyoming, only has five receptions this season. But he sees the results and has embraced whatever role he’s asked to fill.
“The plays have been called and you just have to do your job, just keep doing your job and you’ll end up being successful as a team,” said Shepherd, who said he loves physicality. “If we can run the ball, we might as well do it. I’m fine blocking.”
The success in the run game also has taken the pressure off Thunder Basin’s new starting quarterback, junior Ryan Baker.
He was tasked with replacing all-state quarterback Mason Hamilton and has been impressive during his first three starts.
Baker is completing 60% of his passes, throwing for five touchdowns and just one pick, which came on a Hail Mary. During the 64-7 win Friday night, he went 10-12 for 158 yards to go with touchdowns rushing and passing.
Friday’s win also was special because it was Thunder Basin’s senior night. Even though the senior starters only played about a half of football during the blowout, eight of the nine touchdowns on the day were scored by 12th graders.
It wasn’t the final time that TBHS fans get to see the seniors play on their home field. Nor was the final score close, but the win still meant a little extra.
“It was good to get that win on senior night and get that opportunity for the seniors,” Baker said. “It wasn’t sad because it’s the third game of the year, but those guys are really important to me and important to all of us.”
The Bolts stand as one of two undefeated teams in 4A football. Now the goal is to keep taking steps forward and avoiding complacency.
“The key is to keep pushing ourselves and our teammates in every practice, on every play,” Shepherd said. “We’ve just got to stay focused on what our main goal is and work to get there.”
After this week, there will only be one undefeated team in 4A with Thunder Basin taking on 3-0 Cheyenne Central on Friday. Central is coming off a 20-17 win over Sheridan on a game-winning pass with 9 seconds left.