The final minutes of Jackson’s 1-0 state championship win over Thunder Basin on Saturday were an exercise in breath holding for the packed stands and lined field anxiously awaiting the clock to read straight zeros.
The Bolts, who entered the state championship game unbeaten on the year, continued to get looks on net while the Broncs could only defend the onslaught of free kicks and corner kicks they were under.
Thunder Basin earned a free kick from 44 yards out with 70 seconds left, and the Bolts brought their keeper up for what looked like a final chance on goal. Jackson keeper Archer Caulkins punched the ball out, and the Broncs collectively set back into position to stave off another Bolts charge.
With 20 seconds left, Thunder Basin again played a free kick into the box. The ball was defended, cleared to midfield and booted high in the air, hovering over William T. McIntosh Stadium as the final horn put a cap on the fifth Wyoming boys soccer state championship in school history.
“It’s just mark your man,” senior defender Max Hammond said of the final moments. “Do not let that guy get past, no matter what.”
Junior Jafet Hernandez-Moreno’s stellar right foot allowed the Broncs to close the game with great defense.
After a first half of deep run after deep run for the Broncs, they finally broke through seven minutes before halftime. A free kick played into the middle of the Bolts’ box deflected off Hammond’s head, skirting the pitch toward Hernandez-Moreno near the top of the box. He one-timed it off the hop, burying it low and away for what was ultimately the state championship deciding goal.
“I wanted to try something new,” Hernandez-Moreno said. “I thought, ‘Why not go for it?’ So I went for it, looked at the ball, good placement, and just hit it with pace.”
Hernandez-Moreno put in perhaps the top performance in the weekend of soccer in Jackson. He scored three goals across three games, and the Bolts knew he was dangerous heading into Saturday’s matchup.
“Jafet, we knew he’s one of their strengths, and we failed to mark him on that one set piece,” Thunder Basin coach Saber Garcia said. “He just ripped one. Our goalie didn’t have a chance.”
Jackson’s run to the state championship was remarkable because of how little could have been expected from the team heading into the tournament. The Broncs had struggled to string together meaningful wins during the regular season, settling for third place at the 4A West regional tournament a week ago and the West’s No. 3 seed in the state tournament.
But as the weekend wore on, the Broncs continued to show they belonged with any team in the state. It began in the opening round when Jackson turned in possibly its best performance of the year with a 2-0 win over Cheyenne Central. Then in Friday’s semifinals against Star Valley — a team that bounced Jackson in regionals — the Broncs responded from behind twice, drawing even to force overtime and then a shootout, which they won 4-3.
Head coach Matt Hoelscher took over the team this year after Jackson failed to make the state tournament a year ago. Even with a few lost seasons and a mostly young roster, he said before the first kick of the season that he thought his side could compete for a state title.
“I knew at the very beginning of the season we had one hell of a team,” he said. “I knew we could play that way. To peak at the right time, in the state tournament, is ideal.
“And I think we did.”