CHEYENNE – Wide receiver was one of the biggest question marks surrounding the Cheyenne East football team when practice started in mid-August.
The Thunderbirds graduated four of their top five pass catchers from a team that went 7-4 and reached the Class 4A semifinals. Those losses included Chance Aumiller, who set a state record with 1,121 yards in 2019.
Senior Jackson Hesford ranked fifth in 4A in receiving yards per game, giving East a solid foundation to build from. T-Birds coach Chad Goff was confident his team would be fine at the position.
Thus far, Goff has been proven right.
Hesford is the leading receiver in 4A at 126.8 yards per game heading into the No. 4-ranked Thunderbirds’ (3-1) matchup with third-ranked Sheridan (3-1). Kickoff is set for 6 tonight.
Juniors Jake Rayl and Gavin Goff are fourth and seventh, respectively. Hesford and Rayl both have four receiving touchdowns, while Goff has three.
If that wasn’t enough weapons, sophomore Garet Schlabs has hauled in 13 passes for 176 yards and three scores.
“You can throw to any of the four of them at any given time,” Chad Goff said. “They all catch the ball really well and have great ability to get yards after the catch. They’re all also doing a great job of blocking.
“Our outside running game is as good as it has ever been, and that’s a testament to those guys and how well they’re blocking. Even on bubble plays, we’re getting a lot of yards because of how well they’re blocking.”
Three of the four grew up with coaches in their household. Hesford is the son of East defensive coordinator Steve Hesford. Goff is the son of head coach Chad Goff. Schlabs is the son of East athletics director Jerry Schlabs, who spent time on the T-Birds’ football staff before moving into his current role.
Hesford credits time spent working with senior quarterback Graedyn Buell as part of the reason East’s passing game hasn’t skipped a beat.
“We came to the stadium three times per week and put in the work,” he said. “When they told us we had to stop doing that, we went to Brimmer Park. We would do whatever we could.”
Hesford already has 507 receiving yards, many of which have come after the catch. The 5-foot-9, 165-pounder is picking up many of those yards because of his speed, but he also is battling through contact, Buell said.
“He is one of the strongest kids I know,” Buell said. “He is so hard to tackle when you get your hands on him because he is so strong. Good luck getting your hands on him, though, because he is so fast.
“He is so fast and shifty, he is hard to stay in front of. He puts his foot in the ground, and you don’t know which way he is going to go.”
Rayl caught 16 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns as a junior. That is probably more passes than he expected to catch, considering the number of seniors ahead of him on the depth chart, but Rayl worked his way into a bigger role as last season progressed.
“I tried to learn as much as I could from the seniors who were in front of me,” he said. “We had a lot of good receivers to learn from. I already knew I was pretty much the next guy up at every receiver position.
“I worked hard in practice to learn every position and mentally prepare to play more. When my time came, I was ready.”
Rayl improved by leaps and bounds last fall, Chad Goff said.
“If you were to watch our football camp going into his junior year, he was struggling to catch the ball a little bit,” the coach said. “He got a little bit better and a little more confident every week last season, and he is doing a tremendous job this season.”
Rayl has 12 catches for 296 yards this fall. Gavin Goff – who grew up playing quarterback – has 13 catches for 237 yards in his first season as a slot receiver. Goff and Schlabs have given Buell a wealth of weapons to throw to.
“(Goff) understands the routes, and he worked hard this off-season to become a good route runner,” Chad Goff said. “(Schlabs) has also worked extremely hard, and he is extremely athletic. They knew they had the opportunity to do what they’ve done so far, and they’ve made the most of it.”
Hesford and Rayl have been impressed with Schlabs and Gavin Goff’s eagerness to learn and compete.
“They’re the type of kids who do anything they’re asked to do,” Rayl said. “They don’t complain, and they’re smart. They have worked hard, but their attitudes really help.”