Nearly three weeks out from Thanksgiving, a hungry Thunder Basin High football team feasted on roast Thunderbird on Friday to remain undefeated and advance to the Class 4A state championship game.
Bolts star quarterback Mason Hamilton was having his best game of the season Friday night before a big hit from the Cheyenne East defense forced him to slowly walk off the field late in the second quarter with his right arm hanging at his side.
A change at QB in the middle of a playoff game would spell disaster for most teams, but not for the No. 1-ranked Thunder Basin High School Bolts (11-0).
Hamilton had already thrown for three touchdowns to pace the Bolts to a 27-6 halftime lead and their high-octane defense took over from there to secure a 27-21 win over Cheyenne East and a spot in Saturday’s state championship game in Laramie.
The Thunderbirds made a late push behind their own standout quarterback, Graedyn Buell. They were driving on the second-to-last possession of the game, eying a game-winning touchdown until TBHS senior Blaine Allen came up with a diving interception to secure the win.
“I knew if we had a chance to win, we just needed to come together and play and that’s exactly what we did,” Hamilton said. “We talk about it almost every week — about the brotherhood we need to have — and I think that really showed tonight. When anybody goes down, we’re always able to rally.”
Slow starts have plagued the Bolts for much of the season, but the semifinal game was a different story. It took one drive to shake the nerves, then Thunder Basin marched straight down the field on the second drive for a touchdown and 6-0 lead.
Jaxon Pikula ran for 23 yards on the drive that started near midfield, but the bigger concern for East was its inability to cover Tanner Richards. His second reception of the drive was an 18-yard touchdown, as Hamilton made a big-league throw on a corner route for the 6-0 lead.
That connection proved to be backbreaking for the T-birds, who were burned by Richards and Hamilton on the next drive as well.
A 17-yard reception by Allen moved TBHS down to the red zone, then Hamilton flashed his arm talent on another corner route. This time he put the throw right over Richards’ shoulder at the back pylon and he hung on, despite a defender hanging on his back.
After holding the ball for the kicker on the PAT to make it 13-0 with 10:21 left in the second quarter, Richards came straight to the sideline to celebrate with Hamilton. There was reason for that.
After the game, both seniors remembered telling each other “we’re going off” during the week leading up to the game. They weren’t the only ones to foresee a big performance.
“I figured they were going to press us like they did, but I didn’t think they could cover Tanner. He’s too quick for them,” TBHS coach Trent Pikula said. “I wanted to get the ball in his hands and he made a couple of amazing catches and Mason made some perfect throws.”
The Hamilton to Richards connection struck one more time before the end of the first half to push the lead to 20-0 with 5:48 left. After driving 40 yards to the 6, Hamilton rolled out to his left and found Richards in the back of the end zone between three East defenders.
There was zero margin for error on all three of Hamilton’s TD passes and Richards knew that.
“He put some great throws on for me,” Richards said. “They were all pinpoint and I was just lucky enough to be able to make the plays for him. We were airing out the ball all week and we knew coming in to today that it was going to be a great day.”
Meanwhile, the Bolts defense was having its way with the high-powered East offense. Through four possessions, the Thunderbirds only had one first down and that was because of a penalty. Every time Buell dropped to throw, he had rushers in his face and he never could find a rhythm.
A trick play was the only way East could fool the Bolts in the first half. Buell threw a lateral to the state’s top receiver, Chance Aumiller, who turned and launched a pass of his own to the end zone.
The Bolts had decent coverage, but Jackson Hesford pulled away from two defenders and ran under the pass for a 44-yard touchdown. The lead had just started to feel comfortable at 20-0, then East’s TD closed the gap to 20-6 just 34 seconds later.
The TBHS offense wasn’t fazed when it got the ball back. Jaxon Pikula softened up the defense with a pair of runs for 19 yards before Hamilton fooled a defender with a pump fake and ran for 27 yards all the way to the East 10.
Hamilton took a shot at the end of the play, which had the packed TBHS stadium rocking. The crowd quickly quieted when the senior quarterback left the field holding his right shoulder flanked by training staff.
Insert sophomore quarterback Ryan Baker.
He only took one snap on his first drive, but it was effective. He handed off to Hayden Lunberg on a sweep, who broke multiple tackles on the 10-yard touchdown run to make it 27-6 with with 3:35 left in the half.
The Bolts went into halftime still leading by three touchdowns, but the cloud of Hamilton’s injury hung over the stadium. It didn’t help when he returned to the sideline without his shoulder pads and his right arm in a sling.
Thunder Basin ran the ball almost the entire second half and challenged the Thunderbirds to beat its defense. The only problem was that Buell found ways to elude the rush and finally got into a rhythm.
The first time East got the ball in the third quarter, it put together a 15-play scoring drive that milked more than 4 minutes, 30 seconds off the clock. Hesford made a leaping catch in front of a TBHS defender to cap the drive with an 11-yard touchdown and make it 27-14 with 4:52 remaining in the third quarter.
The Bolts made a big stop on East’s next drive, with linebacker Colton Randall breaking up a pass on third down to stall East’s momentum. However, the Thunderbirds had caught on to the fact that TBHS was content running the ball and was making stop after stop by stacking the box with eight or nine defenders.
The Thunderbirds got another chance with 43 seconds left in the third after a second straight three-and-out. Buell marched them downfield again, but it all came down to one play when Aumiller came up just short on third and 15.
It was fourth and inches from the TBHS 6 yard line and the T-Birds ran an option to the left. Buell pitched it, but the Bolts had both options covered and blasted Christian Anderton in the backfield.
“Colton Randall forced him back in on the pitch, right back into a swarm of defenders,” TBHS senior Caleb Driskill said. “We just rallied right there. All of us were right around the ball. It was a great stop … especially with us only winning by six.
“If they get that (first down), it’s a different game possibly. It was a big time stand.”
All TBHS needed was to run time off the clock. They picked up three first downs on the next drive behind Lunberg and Jaxon Pikula to chew up nearly five minutes of clock.
East scored quickly when it got the ball back to make it to a one possession game at 27-21, but there was just 2:19 left at that point. The T-Birds tried an elaborate onside kick after the PAT, but Driskill, who led the Bolts with 11 tackles, was right there to recover it.
Cheyenne East had one last chance to drive 56 yards in 47 seconds after making a big stop, but Allen picked off Buell’s throw and the Bolts celebrated their championship berth.
The whole TBHS sideline threw their hands in the air when Allen made the interception. Coach Pikula said the team still has “bigger fish to fry,” but his immediate reaction was, “We did it.”
For Hamilton, standing on the sidelines for the whole second half was no easy task, especially since he was putting together his best game of the year when it mattered most. Before exiting, he was 15-18 for 138 yards and three touchdowns.
“That was the best I’ve felt all year,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I normally do before the games. I was anxious all week, but I knew I needed to relax.
“I had a pit in my stomach (watching) on the sideline. It’s not that I didn’t have confidence in my team, it was just that I couldn’t be out there playing with them.”
But he was just as happy, if not happier, as any of his teammates after Allen sealed the win with the interception.
“I have never felt emotion like that in my life. … I saw Blaine dive for it and I saw him make a great play on the ball,” Hamilton said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy in my entire life.”
Thunder Basin will face longtime Gillette rival Sheridan on Saturday at War Memorial Stadium at the University of Wyoming. The Broncs advanced by thrashing Cheyenne Central 62-35 Friday. At 10-1, Sheridan’s only loss this year was to Thunder Basin.