It would be impossible to tell by the final score, but just two plays across four quarters of football on Saturday might have been the difference between a state championship for the Jackson Broncs and the second-place plaque the Broncs ended up bringing back from Cody.
Well before the Cody Broncs celebrated a convincing 34-13 3A state football championship victory on their home field, they muffed the opening kickoff, sending the visiting Broncs into a frenzy. The energy grew for Jackson with each yard gained from there, running back Brody Hasenack picking up chunks of yards as he and the Broncs drove to Cody’s 2-yard line. That ended with a fumble on first-and-goal, and five plays later Cody was in the end zone. Two more fumbles for Jackson, including another inside the 5-yard line that pushed them back to the 21 on fourth down, ensured they didn’t get any points on the board as Cody went into the half with a commanding 26-0 lead.
“It really killed us. We had a first and goal, and then again we were at the 5,” Jackson coach David Joyce said. “But it’s not from a lack of trying. It’s just one of those things in high school football that happens.”
That halftime score was a painful reminder for Jackson of the two teams’ meeting in the final week of the regular season, when Cody took a 27-0 halftime advantage and made it into a 48-6 final score as those Broncs secured home field advantage for the playoffs.
In that meeting, Jackson collapsed in the second half, never mounting any sort of resistance as the plethora of Cody running backs danced around Jackson defenders with ease.
That was not the case when Jackson returned to the field in the third quarter on Saturday. Quarterback Sadler Smith found Colter Dawson for an 11-yard touchdown just a few minutes into the third quarter, and as the Jackson defense finally plugged up the Cody rush, Jackson scored another Smith-to-Dawson touchdown at the onset of the fourth quarter.
It gave Cody the ball back with 10:19 left in the game, a world of momentum now on Jackson’s side and a quiet crowd considering the 1,500 fans on hand. Jackson continued its defensive stand, forcing Cody into a third and 8 at its own 10-yard line. Forced to throw for it, Cody quarterback Caleb Pryor dropped back and sent a ball over the middle, off the hand of his intender receiver. However, just as the ball was about to reconnect with the turf, Cody’s Jackson Gall, who was another 10 yards down the field, had doubled back. He laid out, snuck a hand under the tipped pass for a 21-yard completion, a fresh set of downs and ultimately the final blow to Jackson’s ferocious comeback bid.
“I saw the ball, he’d thrown it to another guy,” Gall said of the play. “I seen it was somewhere in my area and I just dove for it. Luckily I came up with it.”
After that the lights came back on for Cody’s offense. The home Broncs used 13 more plays on that drive before Drew Trotter finally punched in the final score of the game with just 1:48 left. Jackson did not go down without swinging over those final two minutes, with Smith leading a drive to Cody’s end zone that ended with an interception as the clock expired on the game and Jackson’s bid to claim a state championship.
“Their tempo and pace can put a lot of points up in a hurry,” Cody coach Matt McFadden said of the second half. “That drive at the end, I guess that’s what I’m most proud of the team for today. That’s what you need to do to run out the clock, and to go down and punch it in after that long drive was big.”
For the handful of Jackson seniors who fought back tears as the realization that the journey ended there in Cody, even playing for a state championship would have been a difficult sell had they been told their futures as freshman. That year, 2017, was the first at the helm for head coach David Joyce, the Colorado import tasked with revitalizing a floundering program that last won a state title in 2007. His first year with the team ended without a win, not much to show for their efforts across the season other than lopsided scoreboards. In 2018, this senior class’ sophomore season, the Broncs made it all the way to the state semifinals, where an errant clock helped Torrington get past Jackson and into the state championship.
And then a year ago, taking on bitter rival and dominant Star Valley in the state semifinals, a first-half trench battle blew open as the Braves rolled through the Broncs and on to another state championship.
This season felt different for those seniors, and it felt different all the way through that final horn signaling the disappointing end to another improbable run. Joyce said that wasn’t lost on his seniors, pointing to the fact that Henry Hershock, the do-a-little-bit-of-everything leader who took over the fullback spot late in the season, was wearing the same compression shirt under his pads that Joyce had bought for the team way back when they were freshmen who were being pounded each time they took the field.
“He wore that just as proof of how far we’ve come as a program, and with so few seniors, I thought this class left it all out on the field,” Joyce said. “We just made too many mistakes in the first half.”
While Joyce gave his final postgame speech to his group of ailing Broncs, he asked them to listen to Cody’s celebrations. He asked them not to forget the feeling. The players who will return next season know the heartbreak of falling a game short of a state championship twice, and now they know the heartbreak of watching the other team raise a state championship in front of them.