It’s been a little over a quarter century since the Wind River Cougars played for the state football championship, but they’re headed to Laramie for a title tilt next Saturday at 1 p.m.
In a classic high school football game, the Cougars edged the visiting Southeast Cyclones 32-30 to advance.
The play of the game came as Southeast attempted to tie the game with 6:50 remaining in the fourth period. The Cyclones’ stellar quarterback Ayden Desmond set up the conversion attempt in an empty backfield from the shotgun.
Wind River senior Rowdy Shearer broke through and pulled down Desmond to end the try and keep the Cougars ahead by a slim two-point margin. The 6-5, 270-pound Shearer had a standout game with a dozen tackles, many of those for loss, and devastating lead blocks for the Wind River ground game.
“It’s amazing, the kids have worked so hard. I’m happy for them, busting that hump of not making it the last two years out of the semi-finals. It was tough,” Wind River head coach Rod Frederick said. “Every senior we have on the team is a leader.”
The Cougars set the tone early with a clock-killing 14-play drive after the initial kickoff.
Runs by Cooper Frederick, Chris Burk, and Joaquin Stevens took six minutes and 15 seconds off the clock as Wind River methodically drove north on their first possession.
Frederick capped the drive and Joaquin Stevens scored the first of his three two-point conversions on a jet sweep for an early 8-0 Wind River lead.
The defensive front of Shearer, Kyzaia Jones, and Isaac Gardner dominated the line of scrimmage, forcing the Cyclones outside or to the air.
Desmond is an excellent left-handed quarterback and he found 6-4 senior receiver Cole Sauer in the end zone with 8:53 to close the gap. A conversion run by TJ Moats knotted the score at 8-8.
Aidan Ruby gambled off the edge with knifing tackles of Desmond and Matthew Chapman, and Blake Snyder drilled Desmond on well-timed linebacker blitzes to keep the Cyclone line guessing.
Wind River mounted another drive after Southeast turned the ball over on downs at the 46.
The Cougars converted a fourth and two on the drive after Tiegen Thompson and Lance York blew up Frederick on a passing attempt two plays earlier.
Stevens nearly scored on a five-yard jet sweep with the ball bouncing loose just inches from the goal line as he was brought down. The officials ruled him down, but the Southeast fans didn’t agree. The game was later stopped as the fans were escorted back to their stands after berating the officials with profanity.
Two plays after the Stevens run Burk crashed in behind Jones on a one-yard plunge with Frederick adding the conversion.
Late in the second period, facing a fourth and 13 from their 25-yard line Southeast set to punt but a low, rolling snap had Desmond chasing the ball. He was tackled by Brayden Tatro at the 10, with 15 seconds left to play in the half.
Frederick was sacked, but the Cougars took a time-out with two seconds remaining in the second period and Frederick found Burk on a 15-yard crossing route as time expired. Stevens added the conversion and momentum was squarely in Wind River’s corner at the half with a 24-8 lead.
Southeast Goshen coach Mark Bullington has been a varsity football coach since 1981, and a head coach since 1999 and didn’t let the late score affect his team.
Southeast displayed great poise to open the third period, marching quickly on a drive of just over two minutes capped by a 4-yard run by TJ Moats with 9:33 on the second quarter clock. The conversion by Desmond cut the score to 24-16.
Wind River picked up a pair of first downs, but a short punt, caught in the wind by Jones gave the Cyclones excellent field position. They scored again with 1:19 remaining in the third quarter on a five-yard Desmond run with Chapman tying the score at 24 on the conversion.
Southeast kicked the ball mid-range the entire game, avoiding the deep return threat posed by Ruby, but each time Stevens snagged the ball cleanly and gave the Cougars excellent field position.
Frederick finally broke a long run with 22 seconds left in the third period on a 54-yard jaunt. He added the conversion run for a 32-24 Wind River lead.
The Cougars gambled and lost in the fourth quarter on an attempted fourth down conversion at their 45 to set up Southeast’s final score.
The Cyclones marched on the short drive with Desmond hitting Chapman for a five-yard touchdown.
The conversion was crucial for the Cyclones. Desmond was sacked from behind by Shearer to keep the Cougars up by two with 6:50 in the final quarter.
Southeast began to march again, this time through the air. Sauer was open on nearly every play and as the clock ticked under two minutes, Desmond tried to hit him in the end zone from the 22-yard line.
Sauer beat Tatro on an out route, but the wind caught the ball and it fell short. Tatro made a good jump on it, intercepting it at the five-yard line with 1:26 left in the game.
“We knew their go to the whole season was that tight end,” Frederick said. “He had Brayden beat, the wind held up the ball, and Brayden made the play, he’s a fast kid.”
All the Cougars had to do was take three snaps from victory formation to win the game, but Burk spiked the ball, stopping the clock on first down.
He avenged the miscue with back-to-back sneaks that set the Cougars up with a fourth and inches from their 14-yard line.
Only 20 seconds remained in the game and Frederick took a timeout. His players coerced him into going for the fourth down conversion rather than punting.
Burk ran up the middle behind Troy Tidzump, Gardner, Snyder, and Jones for the first down and the Cougars were able to run out the clock.
“At first when it bunched up I didn’t know,” Frederick said. “When I saw Chris (Burk) get over the 15 I knew we had it, I knew we were okay, it was tough until I saw that.”
The Cougars face either Big Piney or Lingle-Ft. Laramie next Saturday at 1 p.m. at Jonah Field at War Memorial Stadium on the University of Wyoming campus.
Wind River 8 16 8 0 – 32
Southeast 0 8 16 6 – 30
WR – Cooper Frederick 7-run (Joaquin Stevens run) 5:45
SE – Cole Sauer 8-pass from Ayden Desmond (TJ Moats run) 8:53
WR – Chris Burk 1-run (Frederick run) 1:58
WR – Burk 15-pass from Frederick (Stevens run):00
SE – Moats 4-run (Desmond run) 9:33
SE – Desmond 5-run (Matthew Chapman run) 1:19
WR – Frederick 54-run (Frederick run):22
SE – Chapman 5-pass from Desmond (run failed) 6:50