The Bearcats survived a tight affair with the western rival Braves of Star Valley Friday to earn a chance to fight for a berth in the state championship game this Friday against Jackson.
The win, which extended the team’s perfect record to 8-0, was the first playoff victory for Douglas since 2016, and served as revenge for a half-decade of dominance Star Valley held over the Bearcats.
Since 2015, Douglas has been knocked out of the playoffs three times by the Braves, including last season’s 45-12 loss to the eventual state champions.
The Bearcats struggled with the Braves size and physicality early in the game, with Star Valley’s lineman winning at the point of attack regularly on both sides of the ball, which allowed them to score the first touchdown of the game and hold a shutout heading into the final stages of the first half.
The Bearcats finally got something going, and scored 16 unanswered points in a flurry appearing to wrestle the momentum from the scrappy Braves and set themselves up for another commanding victory.
Rylan Wehr caught a ball from Koby Case and scampered to the endzone to put Douglas on the board, then the defense shut down the Star Valley offense quickly to set up a rushing touchdown by Keltan Ewing.
The Bearcats scored once again on a field goal after recovering a fumble.
Unfortunately, they couldn’t carry that strong play over into the second half.
“We felt really good with the 16-7 lead at halftime but we knew they weren’t going to quit,” head coach Jay Rhoades said.
The Bearcats struggled on both sides of the ball as soon as they exited the locker room after half time allowing the Braves to move the ball effortlessly on the very first drive.
Jackson Hughes ended up ending the drive that seemed destined to result in a Braves score with a textbook strip that was recovered by the Bearcats and may have saved the game for Douglas.
The third quarter was all Star Valley as the defense stifled the Bearcats offense, and the Braves offense had its way on the field scoring 14 before the quarter ended to go down by just two.
“I think we got in our heads a lot and it was a very defensive game,” said Cat lineman Aaron Oria. “We couldn’t get the ball rolling because we’ve never really been in that position but I think now that we’ve seen it we will be better off if put in that position again.”
The Douglas defense, which has been the team’s strength all season, righted the ship in the fourth quarter but the offense couldn’t do the same.
The teams were stuck in a stalemate with Douglas still holding that fragile two point lead late in the fourth when Star Valley started to make some plays.
The Douglas defense allowed the Braves to get within field goal range without much resistance before making a final stand forcing Star Valley into a fourth down.
Star Valley coach McKay Young decided to give kicker Kortlen Hilton the chance to win the game.
Instead, the ball went wide left and allowed the Bearcats to escape by the skin of their teeth.
“It was just pure relief to be honest,” Oria said. “Their last two possessions we knew we had to step up and really hold them and when they got to the 30-yard line I felt the nerves kicking in.”
“We knew this was going to be our toughest opponent,” Rhoades said. “We knew there was going to be adversity that we faced in this game, and it would come down to how we handled that adversity.”
The road doesn’t get easier for Douglas, as the 7-1 Jackson Broncs come to town Nov. 6 in a match up of arguably the best two teams in 3A.
As Rhoades says, Cody might have an issue with that statement (the Broncs’ only loss came at the hands of Cody), but it’s hard to ignore both teams resumes.
Douglas has been the best overall team all season, ranking second in team offense and leading the way in all facets of defense in the regular season, although they’ve done it in the weaker east conference.
Jackson on the other hand has had an average defense all year, but by far the most prolific offense.
The Broncs move the ball as equally effectively through the air as they do the run, leading the state in both behind running back Brody Hasenack and quarterback Sadler Smith.
Hasenack averaged more than 80 yards more a game than Ewing, who was the second most prolific runner this season, and the Bronc scored six more touchdowns than his Douglas counterpart.
Smith led the state in passing yards per game, total passing yards, completion percentage and QB efficiency.
“They run a very up tempo offense so we have to be able to prepare for and match the speed of their team,” Rhoades said. “We expect another hard hitting game but we have to be ready for that offense.”
If the Bearcats are able to vanquish Jackson, they will take on the winner of the Cody vs. Powell game in the state championship on Nov. 14.
Where the game will be played is determined by who wins that game. If Cody wins, they will host Douglas as they are both number one seeds and the Wyoming High School Activities Association granted the west home field advantage in that scenario.
However, if Powell defeats Cody, they will have to come to Douglas for the game.
Cody defeated Powell 14-0 on Sept. 25, but that was at the halfway mark of the season, so it may not foretell much about what can happen this week.
The Douglas vs. Jackson game will kickoff at noon at the Douglas football field.