CHEYENNE – Carter Rich remembers the moment well. He replays it in his mind constantly.
During the 2017 Class 4A state final against Cheyenne Central, Rich netted the match-tying goal for Cheyenne East, who went on to win the state championship – the program’s first in 18 years.
The goal defined Rich’s young career as a Thunderbird. There was another moment, too, one less thrilling but more self-assuring.
“I feel like it was a little more before that, when it was at regionals and we were playing Central and I scored when we were down 5-0,” Rich said. “That showed that I could play with the bigger kids and that I could make big-time plays.
“I showed Central, a team that had beat us three times that season, that I can play with them as well. That goal in the state final was probably the highlight of my career so far.”
Rich helped lead the Thunderbirds to the 4A state tournament in Jackson and a 6-9-1 finish, and the T-Birds junior midfielder, along with the rest of his teammates, will need to up his game even more this season.
The departures of offensive stalwart Brayden Parker and all-around leader Chayce Willett have left a void in East’s lineup. Last season, Parker posted 14 goals – nearly 50 percent of East’s offense – and added two assists. Willett scored five goals and assisted on two others. Both were all-state selections.
“To make up those 14 goals or so that he scored is going to be big,” East Coach Ryan Cameron said. “That’s going to come from a kid like Carter Rich, a kid like Isaiah Tapia, a kid like Nolan Gerdes. All those kids will probably play a majority of the time in the attack for us this year, and they’re going to have to figure out a way to shoulder some of that load that Brayden carried for us.
“Replacing a four-year starter and
all-state center-back in Chayce Willett is a huge chore, too,” Cameron said.
Rich is up to the challenge.
He’s put in the work during the offseason, improving both his skills and technique, along with his on-ball footwork and speed.
“Being creative on making runs and scoring,” Rich said of what he’s improved upon the most over the last several months. “I used to not be too confident on the ball, but now I’m pretty confident with the ball at my feet. I used to not want to dribble around defenders, but I can get around some defenders now.”
In terms of filling Parker’s shoes, Rich is confident he can get the job done. His success last season is proof.
“It’s too early to tell. I feel like I can put some goals away,” Rich said. “But it’s not just scoring goals; it’s getting teammates involved. We have Isaiah Tapia, who scored five or six varsity goals last year, and he’s got the same attributes as Brayden, (and we’re) trying to get him into Brayden’s role as well.”
But shouldering the load more and emerging as one of the next leaders of the T-Birds brings nerves, and Rich is well aware of it.
“It’s pretty important, but it’s also a little nerve-wracking having a lot of (the) workload on me,” Rich added. “It’s nothing that I shy away from. I’m up for the challenge.”
Perhaps the biggest intangible Rich has in his arsenal is his work ethic. His motor is always running at full speed, no matter the situation during a match or in practice. He simply loves to work, and that attribute alone could go a long way in helping East this season.
“That’s one thing we won’t have to worry about ever from Carter is his work rate and his energy and his attitude, quite honestly, and his enthusiasm,” Cameron said. “We ask kids to bring those things every day, whether you have the best first touch on the ball ever or if the ball gets away from you, because we can bring those intangible things. He encompasses those for us as a team. He’s a highly skilled player, nevertheless. (He’s) probably not as technical on the ball as some, but his vision of the game, his idea of where the next ball needs to be played, is correct most often.”
Another moment Rich remembers – one still fresh in his mind every time he walks on the pitch – is the disheartening feeling after losing both matches at state last season.
“We’re hungry. We’re ready to play,” he said. “We’re ready to prove that, even though we’ve lost some talent over the years, that we still have talent here. We may not have (the best) talent, but we have hard work, and these kids have good attributes that’ll help us get back to state. We were really disappointed last year with the turnout (at state), getting eighth place. Going from first (in 2017) to last, it was bad.”