It brings the players’ blood to a boil every time River Ridge High School football coach Steve Schultz brings up the subject.
How the Hawks were upset by North Kitsap in the first round of the 2A state playoffs last year.
How Dax Solis broke for a 62-yard touchdown run on third-and-long to give the Vikings that 17-6 lead that ended River Ridge’s best season in school history.
How that touchdown followed a Hawks fumble, minutes earlier, as they were driving, looking for the go-ahead touchdown.
“Instantaneous dig,” Schultz said. “It was just a burn and it started to bubble.”
Zach Carter, a four-year starter for the Hawks, remembers that game, as much as he, and his teammates, might not want to.
“That’s something that we’ve got to think about,” he said. “Last year we were in this same situation. We had an edge on a team, a game we should have won, and didn’t take care of business.”
River Ridge will make its third straight trip to the Class 2A state playoffs this weekend — the last two trips, the Hawks lost at this point, and that stings but has proved a good motivational tactic.
So, when the subject of North Kitsap comes up, Carter glances at his teammates and sees it in them, too.
“That feeling I had after that game, I don’t ever want to have that again,” Carter said. “You look around and everybody feels the same way.”
The first-round loss. It’s been a common trend for teams in the area for the past several years.
Five local teams — Timberline, River Ridge, Black Hills, Tumwater and W.F. West — will play in the first round of the state playoffs this weekend.
But just how do they advance?
“You hope you catch that magic, and the ball bounces your way, and you get to play again the next week,” W.F. West coach Bob Wollan said.
Magic — sometimes that’s what it must be. There is no proven formula, and most coaches agree.
“Now, you’re getting into uncharted territory,” Timberline coach Mike Spears said.
None of these teams — Tumwater excluded — have played in a state championship game. Timberline, River Ridge, Black Hills and W.F. West have appeared in the state playoffs a combined 31 times.
Those schools have made it out of the first round eight times, and the most recent trip to the quarterfinals for any of them is when W.F. West routed Sequim, 52-21, on the way to a state semifinal appearance. Before that? It was the Bearcats in 2009, scooting by Blaine in Tumwater.
That happened to be the last time W.F. West beat Tumwater, its longtime league rival, and the lone team remaining that has ever advanced past the state semifinals.
This will be the 27th trip to the state playoffs for the T-Birds, who are looking for a sixth title, a road that begins when they host Washington at 7 p.m. Friday.
“I think for every team it’s a unique and different situation,” Wollan said. “For us, I would say our biggest Achilles heel has been that we can’t beat Tumwater. Our first-round games have been brutal.”
Some of that is seeding. Ten times, the four have lost in the first round to a team that went on to play in the state championship game, and five of those times, they have lost to the eventual state champion.
“Playoff football is about going on the road to somebody else’s place,” Wollan said. “We’re playing No. 1 seeds all the time. It’s a really tough game.”
It’s tough this week, too, he said. River Ridge isn’t the No. 1 seed out of its district, but it almost was, and the Bearcats come to Lacey at 6 p.m. Saturday at South Sound Stadium.
The takeaway there — at least one of these teams advances past the first round, and River Ridge hasn’t done it since its first state-playoff appearance in 1998.
“It’s one or done,” Schultz said. “It’s the best team you’ve ever played. It’s, if we don’t win, we’re done. Monday, turn in your pads if you lose. It’s the Super Bowl every game from now on. That’s it, that’s the attitude.”
Really, it has to be, especially when the team on the opposing sideline truly is one of the best in the state.
Timberline gets that this week when Eastside Catholic, the two-time defending 3A state champion, visits at 7 p.m. Friday.
Spears has watched the Crusaders on tape — no visible weaknesses, nowhere to gain a sizable advantage. All the Blazers can try to do is slow a team that has put up 3,900 offensive yards and 45 touchdowns this season.
“They’re not going to give us anything,” Spears said. “If you want to get where you want to get, you’re going to have to take it.”
Maybe with some of that magic Wollan was talking about. Spears said he wants to hang with the Crusaders until the fourth quarter — it worked when the Blazers beat Peninsula to clinch the 3A South Sound Conference crown, after all — and go from there.
“I think we have a shot,” Spears said. “Most people probably don’t think we have a shot. But we’ve believed in each other all year.”
Part of what’s carried Timberline, really, is that intangible quality of belief.
“I think it’s cool we’re playing the two-time defending champions,” Timberline running back Anthony Hathaway said. “I think of it like, if you want to be the champ, you’ve got to beat the champ. That’s what we’re going to go by this week.”
Black Hills, too. The last time the Wolves lost to Lynden — who they meet at 1 p.m. Saturday at Civic Stadium in Bellingham — was in 2009, when the Lions won their fifth of eight state titles.
Losing an early lead triggered a first-round exit for Black Hills, which lost 14-7 at that same stadium. The Wolves have played in this round six times and never made it out.
“I think, a lot of times, it’s a combination of matchups and it’s that attitude in the playoffs of controlling the ball and limiting mistakes,” coach Kirk Stevens said. “When we lost to Lynden last time, it was a tight football game right down to the very end, and two critical mistakes was a 14-point swing.”
The late holding flag that cost the Wolves a touchdown on third-and-goal, and the blown coverage that gave Lynden a touchdown, tying the score just before the half. Stevens remembers both.
“When teams get on a roll in the playoffs, it tends to roll pretty quick,” he said.
The frustrating memories are there for these four area teams. The missteps, the untimely penalties, the last-second losses.
So how can this year be different? How do they advance?
“We’re just going to keep pushing, keep fighting,” Hathaway said.
“You really start seeing everybody buckle down,” Carter said. “None of us want to stop playing.”
Maybe just the first one is what’s needed to cause that domino effect to the quarterfinals, semifinals and eventual state championship.
“Once you get that first win in the playoffs, it puts teams at ease a little bit,” Stevens said. “It’s that getting through.”