It might sound odd to say Saturday's Thunder Mountain-Soldotna matchup is the biggest game in Falcons football history - which is all of 15 games old - but that certainly is the case.
"It is. This is the biggest game that these guys will have played at Thunder Mountain High School," coach Bill Byouer said. "It will be the only first-time playoff game that this school can have. This is etching it in stone and putting it in the history book.
"We finished 8-0. That was great, but that season's over. Now, this three-game season is upon us."
Junior right tackle Aaron Corcoran agreed.
"So far it is the biggest game," he said. "We're undefeated and they're undefeated, so it's huge. We're approaching it like we're going to go get respect. We're going to show them that we're here to play football."
And another thing is certain: Soldotna is the toughest opponent Thunder Mountain has ever seen in a true game. It's on the road and it's on the biggest stage in Alaska for prep football - the state playoffs. And it's against a program with a storied 3A history, especially over the last decade.
"Soldotna is big, strong and fast," Byouer said. "They've been dominant for eight years, them and Kenai. They've consistently cleaned house. That's a quality team over there, obviously."
The Stars, out of the six-team Northern Lights Conference, have played in nine state championship games and won three since the current format's inception in 1990.
Soldotna was the runner-up last year after winning three straight from 2006 to 2008.
Thunder Mountain, on the other hand, is in the playoffs for the first time after earning the three-team Southeast Conference's first playoff bid. The Falcons rolled through the season by an average of 25 points per game, including a 4-0 sweep of conference foes Sitka and Ketchikan, which the Falcons dominated by an average of nearly 27 points per game this season after finishing 3-1 last year.
Soldotna runs the Wing-T offense to perfection, Byouer said, predicated on misdirection.
"The video we've seen shows that they execute crisply. You can't tell who has the ball," he said. "Their line is big, it's fast and they know what's going on. Their running backs play out the play fakes. One of the things about the Wing-T is misdirection. You have to be able to be disciplined and smart in your area. If the running backs cover up and show like they have the ball, you can't find the ball sometimes.
"You have to be disciplined and smart, you can't overreact and you have to wait for them to come to you."
The Falcons, ranked No. 2 in the final Alaska Sports Broadcasting Network's small school poll, don't think it's the least bit unfair for them to have face No. 1 Soldotna in the first round instead of the final round. No other teams have fewer than two losses.
"I'm very happy to be able to be in the playoffs this year. When ASAA gave us a berth, I was happy," Byouer said. "We're 8-0, Soldotna is 8-0, and so be it. I'm happy that we're in there and the bottom line is, well, we don't have to see them in three games to figure out if we're good or not.
"We'll know right off the bat."
Byouer said all of Soldotna's playoff experience doesn't necessarily give the Stars an advantage.
"You know what; it really doesn't. Every week, these kids have gotten better. They continue to strive to be the best they can be," he said. "This is what we've got: We have senior leadership that is just kicking butt right now. They're focused and I'm happy. I want them to have it. I want them to have this first win."
Junior left tackle Jordan Hakala thinks the Falcons have the advantage of being the unknown team where it's been either Kenai or Soldotna to win the 3A championship every year since 2002.
"When you've got a new gun coming in, you don't know. You don't know our strengths or weaknesses because you only play (Kenai). You know all of their seniors and exactly what they do every play. That's just a battle of who's got more heart. We can come in there with different packages they haven't seen."
A win for Thunder Mountain would give the team the seven letters it's been searching for all season long: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
"Right now, respect, we want to go get it," Byouer said. "They only way for us to get respect is by taking it from Soldotna. We're going to hit them hard, they're going to hit us hard. It's going to be a good game and we will see. Who knows?"
Saturday's game kicks off at 4 p.m. at Soldotna. According to weather.com, there is a 60 percent chance of showers with a high of 44 degrees and a low of 36.
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