During Cheyenne East’s first game this season, Cade Pugh was knocked unconscious late in the game and didn’t return.
With caution from the coaching staff, he sat out the following week against Natrona County – a 14-13 road win – and went to the doctor, where everything was confirmed to be OK.
It was an awakening experience for the senior.
“It opened my eyes how short your season could be,” he said. “It drove that point home that any play could be your last, so you have to make it count, right?”
Pugh was back on the field for East’s next game against Campbell County and rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns in a come-from-behind 27-24 victory for the Thunderbirds. He also finished with eight total tackles, a pass breakup and an interception in that game.
“He was more focused after (missing the Natrona game), for sure,” East coach Chad Goff said. “When he had to sit the next game, that weighs heavy on a kid’s mind. He played like ‘This could be my last play, I’m going to be great in every play that I’m a part of.’”
Pugh rolled that performance against Campbell County into the rest of the season, where he totaled 14 touchdowns on the ground and finished as the fourth-leading rusher in Class 4A with 1,016 yards to earn a first team all-conference and second team all-state nod. He added 144 yards and two touchdowns receiving.
But the defensive side of the ball is where he may have seen his game develop the most throughout the campaign and led to him earning first team all-state defensive back honors. The play on both sides of the ball gave Pugh inaugural Laramie County Football Player of the Year honors from Cheyenne’s WyoSports staff.
“He’s a good tackler and does such a good job coming up and playing in the box,” Goff said. “He’s a great hitter defensively. His understanding of the coverage improved so much as time went on you could tell he was more confident in checking coverages.”
While gradually getting more comfortable in pass coverage as the season progressed, the 5-foot-8, 170-pounder primarily found the most success against the run game. He finished tied for 18th in the state with six tackles per game and also notched six pass breakups.
Pugh said the games against run-heavy teams were what allowed him to make the most plays, and it also helped him with the ball in his hands.
“He’s always been strong and really hard-nosed, and pinned his ears back on defense, and I think this year he really brought that to his run game,” East senior quarterback Gavin Goff said. “He turned himself into a special running back for us, and that takes a lot of pressure off me because we could always rely on him for solid yards.”
Gavin suffered a season-ending right knee injury Oct. 8, and was second in the state in all-purpose offense at the time. With a huge blow to the East offense, there would be production that needed to be made up. Sophomore quarterback Camden Hayes stepped in and picked up a lot of that production. And Pugh was also able to take some of that pressure off of Hayes.
It was what was expected in an East program that’s a perennial contender, and Pugh credited the coaching staff for preparing him to handle those expectations.
“I knew I would have a little more responsibility on the offensive side of the ball,” Pugh said. “Gavin was our dude. Losing him really hurt, but I knew I would have to step up little bit. I wouldn’t call it pressure, just expectation, really.”