BIG PINEY – The odds heavily favored the Rocky Mountain Grizzlies to win the Sept. 9 game against the Big Piney Puncher football team.
Media polls in the state ranked the Grizzlies No. 2 in the 1A, 9-man Conference with 186 points. Big Piney hung near the bottom of the survey with 3 points.
Defying expectations, the Punchers fought like true underdogs to score a 12-8 win against Rocky Mountain. Big Piney, the wild card, completely reshuffled the rankings and set the Punchers up for an exciting season.
Senior Thomas Howard ground down the Grizzly offense as a linebacker and relentlessly drove the ball forward on the Puncher offense.
“Our team really came together against Rocky Mountain,” Howard said. “Our offense started improving, our defense got going. We all started understanding 9-man football. The state realized Big Piney was actually a factor.”
Junior Reuben Stoutenburg consistently churned up yards as a running back, pulled off one tackle after another and recovered a fumble.
“Beating the State runner-ups was a statement game for us and proved that we could play 9-man and that we’re here and we’re legit,” Stoutenburg said.
In the third quarter, junior Karsyn Gurr returned Rocky Mountain’s kick into the end zone and intercepted two passes in the fourth quarter.
“It felt like everyone was clicking, everyone was on the same page,” Gurr said of the Rocky Mountain game. “We put Big Piney on the map and made other teams scared to play us.”
The three athletes continued to excel on defense, offense and special teams after Rocky Mountain and received 2022 1A, 9-man All-Conference and All-State honors from the Wyoming Coaches Association.
“I was pretty excited to get All-State,” said Stoutenburg. “I really didn’t expect it and felt that there were some other people on the team that deserved it more, but it was still a great accomplishment.”
All-State recognition also came as a surprise for Howard.
“I was hoping for All-State, but I missed some games because of injuries, so I thought it was a long shot,” he said. “But I’m pretty excited that I did end up getting it.”
Gurr wondered whether his “stats” were good enough to earn All-State.
“I felt like I might get the award, but I wasn’t sure,” he said. “It felt pretty good when I did get All-State.”
The three Punchers started playing football in elementary and middle school. Their first tentative steps onto the gridiron were not always smooth. Learning the ins and outs of football took time.
Inspired by his older brother, Howard decided to give the sport a try in sixth grade.
“I honestly didn’t like football all too much at the beginning, but then come my sophomore year in high school, I really developed a love for it and that love grew very fast,” he said.
Gurr first picked up the pigskin in fifth grade.
“When I played peewee football, I was a lineman and I didn’t like it,” he said. “I decided to give it a shot again in sixth grade, and that’s when everything kind of clicked and I found a love for the sport.”
For Stoutenburg, football came more naturally, the result of attending Puncher games as a child.
“I’ve been watching my cousins play football since as long as I can remember,” he said. “I’ve played since sixth grade and loved it.”
Advancing from peewee football to the varsity level involved hours, days, weeks and years of painstaking effort and practice.
“The work ethic part – it just kind of has to be in you,” said Howard. “I don’t really think that can be taught.”
Preparing for the season involved a significant time commitment in the weight room over the summer, Stoutenburg explained. Once regular practices commenced, the players “put in a lot of conditioning” and ran extra miles after practice, he added.
For Gurr, the motivation to put in long hours came from the coaching staff.
“When it came to work ethic, for me, it was the coaches trying to bring back pride in the Big Piney Puncher name, trying to get that ego back,” said Gurr.
Howard, Gurr and Stoutenburg played both offense and defense and sometimes special teams, spending nearly every moment of each game on the field.
“Offense and defense are completely different mentalities,” said Stoutenburg. “On offense, I know exactly what I’m doing every play. Defense is the opposite. I’ve gotta read and react.”
Stoutenburg and Howard both preferred defense and the opportunity to “hit people” in a sanctioned environment.
Gurr relies on his speed and favors offense.
“I just like having the ball in my hands, going fast and being the star of attention,” Gurr said. “I don’t really hit that hard, so defense is not my thing.”
The All-State players each stepped into leadership roles as team captains in 2022.
As the only team captain playing receiver and corner back, Gurr focused on transferring his skills in both positions to younger players.
Stoutenburg made sure to be available to help underclassmen fully grasp each aspect of a complicated play.
For Howard, leadership involved instilling the right attitude.
“On defense, my main goal as captain was to lead the team with the mentality that we’re going to hit hard,” he said. “Even if we lose, they’re going to remember us. On offense, I tried to help keep our O-line together and the energy up.”
A new conference
The Punchers transitioned from 9-man football in 2022. The biggest change was the additional space on the gridiron – a curse but also a blessing, said Gurr.
“There is more space and a lot more running,” he added. “There is also a lot more opportunity to gain yards, get open, score a touchdown.”
Learning the 9-man defense was a challenge, said Stoutenburg.
“You have to be more accurate on open-field tackling, because there’s nobody else there to save your butt,” he explained.
Each athlete picked out different highlights from the season. Gurr’s kick-return touchdown and pair of interceptions against Rocky Mountain on Sept. 9 remained at the top of his list.
He also enjoyed slogging it out against Greybull in the rain on Sept. 16.
“Greybull was like something out of those classic, retro high school movies where everyone’s jumping and sliding in the rain,” he said.
Howard recalled the Oct. 6 home game against Shoshoni when the Punchers came within four points of beating the 2021 State Champion. Down by 15 points at halftime, the Punchers scored 24 points in the second half, Howard said.
“We weren’t grooving, we didn’t click in the first half,” he added. “Then we came out and started doing our stuff. I thought about all the work and time and energy that the whole team had put in, that I had put in, and why you love this sport.”
Stoutenburg listed the Senior Night game against Riverside on Oct. 20 as his favorite game. Big Piney trounced Riverside, 34-0.
“All around, we played a great game,” he said.
Stoutenburg put in a strong performance offensively against Riverside, churning up yard after yard. He ran the ball into the end zone in the third quarter and converted on another touchdown.
Stoutenburg agreed that the Greybull game was a highlight.
“I got my first touchdown of the season and it was fun getting a win when it was pouring,” he added.
Howard graduates this spring. He plans to take a “gap year” to save money for college. His goal is to study kinesiology and become a chiropractor.
Gurr and Stoutenburg are already looking forward to next season.
“Honestly, I feel like we have a good shot to win State,” said Gurr. “Most teams in our conference are losing all their seniors and we’re returning a lot of players.”
“I feel like we should at least be pre-season favorites,” Stoutenburg said.
Howard, Gurr and Stoutenburg each thanked the coaching staff led by Head Coach Jeromy Moffat.
“We had a wonderful coaching staff this year,” said Howard.
Gurr dedicated his All-State award to his uncle, who was killed in the Marines.
“He gave me a reason to play,” Gurr added.
Gurr also thanked his mother for attending games and patching her son up.
Howard expressed gratitude to his teammate Caden Clifford for helping to “keep my head in the game.”
Stoutenburg thanked Howard for pushing him in the weight room and on the gridiron. He also appreciated his family’s support – they either attended each game or watched online. Stoutenburg gave a shoutout to former Head Coach Ryan Visser.
The three athletes thanked the community for its support.
“The community was great this year,” said Stoutenburg. “The stands were full every at every game.”
“There was a lot of hype around the team,” Howard added.