Three years ago Jackson Hole soccer was at the height of its dominance in 3A Wyoming High School Activities Association soccer. The Broncs wrapped up the state championship with a 1-0 win over Lander Valley in the final to make it three straight years of Jackson titles.

The following year, when the team moved up to 4A, the trouble began. In 2017 and 2018 there was no competing for the state championship. In fact, the Broncs failed to qualify for the state tournament both years. At the 2018 tournament Broncs players had to watch from the sidelines as teams around the state competed for the title on their own turf.

So when Jackson limped into the state tournament this year as the West’s No. 3 seed, that could have been seen as a win on its own. In the regular season the Broncs were a team that looked like a contender in one game and lost in the next. After victory in the first game of a back-to-back series, head coach Matt Hoelscher could always be heard pleading with his players to get their rest and return the next day prepared to play winning soccer.

But when Jackson opened the state tournament against the East No. 2 seed Cheyenne Central, the team looked poised, smooth and skilled from the opening whistle until the final moments in a 2-0 win.

“Sometimes we struggle with playing 80 solid minutes as a team,” Hoelscher said afterward. “We’ll have good halves, good individual performances, but to see 80 solid minutes of quality soccer, I’m pretty pleased.”

That victory, a surprise of its own, set up a semifinal meeting with West No. 1 Star Valley. The Braves had two wins over Jackson on the season, including a 3-0 shutout in the 4A West regional a week before.

Even so, the Broncs were confident. Not only were they running on the fumes of their best performance of the season, the meeting would be played in William T. McIntosh Stadium, where the Broncs had gone without a loss through the season.

“We are undefeated at home; all of our losses have come away,” defender Max Hammond said before the semifinal. “We’re playing on our home turf tomorrow, and I think we can beat them.”

Where the victory over Cheyenne Central could be seen as a cruise, Jackson’s semifinal tilt with Star Valley was an exercise in redemption. The Braves got up in the first half with a rebound opportunity, forcing Jackson to play from behind.

Jafet Hernandez-Moreno, who had three goals in the tournament, brought the game level with a hard-struck ball roughly five minutes before full time. From there Star Valley once again took the lead in overtime on a mishandled save by Jackson goalie Archer Caulkins, and it was again up to Jackson to keep the postseason run alive. With seven minutes left in the second overtime, Raymundo Hernandez earned a penalty kick, which freshman Hunter Dewell stepped in to take.

“He’s our goal taker; he’s really good at taking penalties,” Hernandez-Moreno said of Dewell’s tying goal. “He’s confident, he’s calm, he knows what to do.”

And then in penalty kicks Dewell stepped to the mark as the first Bronc up and buried it. The sides traded makes, with Caulkins the one to make the diving save and send Jackson to the state championship, the first since 2016 and the very first at the 4A level.

“Just happiness,” Caulkins said after being dowsed in water by a teammate. “We’ve made it this far, and we’ve had a couple close calls at regionals and state. Just to make it to the finals is a dream come true, considering last year we didn’t even make it to state.”

The state championship matchup was almost poetic, with the scrappy, up-and-down Broncs taking on the unbeaten Thunder Basin Bolts.

The Bolts boasted a quick and skilled attack that kept the Jackson defense on edge from the onset. But Jackson matched the deep runs from Thunder Basin with chances of their own, chiefly with Hernandez-Moreno dancing in the attacking third. The junior broke through for the first — and only — goal of the game seven minutes ahead of halftime. A free kick played into the box went off Hammond’s head and slipped the pitch back toward the top of the box, where Hernandez-Moreno’s capable right foot took the ball off the bounce with a straight shot into the lower right corner of the net.

His goal against Star Valley came from a similar spot on the field, though Hernandez-Moreno elected to take two touches to get around two defenders and shift the ball to his right foot before the shot.

This time, he said, he just wanted to do something different with it.

“I wanted to try something new,” he 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.”

In the second half, chances for both teams came and went, with the air collectively sucked out of the packed stands and lined field as the final five minutes arrived. Thunder Basin continued to earn free kick after free kick, corner after corner, and each time the Jackson defense marked its man and found a way to hold off the equalizer. The final attempt came with 20 seconds to go. Caulkins, who left briefly with an injury, punched the ball out, and a defender cleared it up the sideline and booted it in the air. The ball landed on the pitch just as the final horn sounded Jackson’s return to the top of Wyoming high school soccer.

“It just feels amazing,” Hernandez-Moreno said with the first-place medal draped across his jersey. “When I was a freshman it was a dream to win state. We had a pretty rough season. Then the next year was a pretty rough season. Then this year we’re state champions. So it’s just a great feeling. It’s something I won’t forget.”

A usually stoic Hoelscher let his smile break through when the team celebrated with the championship trophy. He had said at the beginning of the season he had a team capable of contending, and through all the loses the Broncs were dealt this year, in the end he was right.

“I knew at the very beginning of the season we had one hell of a team,” he said. “It was always just a matter of showing up and playing the way we can play.”

It’s too soon for Jackson to be thinking about 2020. There are celebrations to be had. But a glance over the Jackson roster shows just how capable it is of returning to the top spot in a year. The Broncs will graduate Alan Carrillo-Hernandez, Eduardo Martinez, Raymundo Hernandez, Max Hammond, Jorge Meneses and Will McCreedy — all important cogs — but the team they will return is chock-full of players who performed in key moments as Jackson vied for its unlikely championship.

“I’ll give tribute to the seniors,” Hoelscher said. “I mean, they put in years where they weren’t necessarily successful, and we wanted to build the team around them. But I knew we had a hell of a freshman class coming in, with quality sophomores and juniors.”

Hernandez-Moreno took a break from celebrating with family and friends to do media interviews. When the question of a repeat came up he didn’t seem to mind a quick break in the celebration to look ahead.

Even after turning in perhaps the best individual performance across the entire tournament, Hernandez-Moreno was quick to point to the play of those coming up who will be in the same position he was two years ago: a chippy freshman with eyes for a state title.

“We have a bunch of freshman starting, and our JV went undefeated this season,” he said. “That’s something to think about. I think their ball movement is probably better than ours.”

Contact Chance Q. Cook at 732-7065, sports@jhnewsandguide.com.

Sports Editor Chance Cook has lived in rural Pennsylvania, upstate New York and Butte, Montana. He is no stranger to spending time in the woods chasing animals. If you see him out, challenge him to a game of pool. Send tips and questions.

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Mark Spradling

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