Kirk Stevens knows what it’s like to get the short end of the stick in the playoffs.
He knows what it’s like to come up just short in the chase for league titles.
And he knows what its like to feel overshadowed by the legendary football program that practices just across the freeway.
Since Stevens took over the Black Hills High School football program in 2014, the fifth-year coach has led the Wolves to the Class 2A state playoffs four times.
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Each of the past three seasons, the Wolves have lost in the opening round — to Selah last year, and the two years before that to state powers Lynden and Archbishop Murphy.
Black Hills has advanced to the state playoffs nine times since the school opened in 1997, and never advanced out of the first round.
That unfortunate streak finally ended last Friday, and Stevens — who has coached at the school in some capacity each of the 22 seasons the program has existed — is the coach that has the undefeated Wolves (11-0) in the quarterfinals for the first time.
“We have a little commitment we read before every game,” Stevens said. “At the end, we chant out, ‘We will make history.’ This year, we’re doing it for sure.”
As much as Tumwater High School football has commanded attention in Thurston County during the past five decades, it is Black Hills that has had the storied season in 2018.
In October, the Wolves snapped Tumwater’s nine-year winning streak in the annual Pioneer Bowl with a 22-17 win — their fourth win in the 20-year series — and rolled to their first 2A Evergreen Conference title.
“In the summertime, when we were working out, that was always our motivation — to beat Tumwater,” senior Jordan Claridge said. “But, then I remember after the game, our offensive coordinator (Reggie Gaither) looks at us and says, ‘You know, this trophy is really nice now, but we want the bigger, shinier one at the end of the year.’
“Our first true test of the season was seeing how we did against them. Being able to beat them, we’ve realized we can compete with a lot of good teams. I think it’s shown we’ve grown.”
The rivalry win over the traditional powerhouse was rewarded by the WIAA’s 2A/1A state playoffs seeding committee, and the Wolves earned the No. 2 ranking.
For the first time in history, Black Hills hosted in the opening round of the state playoffs, and routed visiting Burlington-Edison, 48-8 — the largest opening-round victory margin of any 2A team this season.
Now the Wolves have the chance to keep their historic season going when they host seventh-ranked Fife (10-1) at 7 p.m. Friday at Tumwater District Stadium.
“The believe,” Stevens said. “And that’s a big part in taking that next step.”
Stevens can remember his first day of practice after becoming the fourth head coach in Black Hills history — following Jeff Gardner, Jack Zilla and Dominic Yarrington.
He told the players something very similar to what he preaches now.
“I think a big part was that we have to believe in ourselves,” Stevens said. “That’s kind of been our message all the way through. There’s things in life you can’t control, and it’s how you respond to those bad situations that is going to dictate your success.
“Bad things are going to happen. You can be the victim, or you can preserve and push through. Since Day 1, that’s been our mentality.”
And, for a long time, it’s been Stevens’ mentality.
He played football, wrestled and ran track at Capital High School before graduating in 1986.
He remembers the Cougars losing in the state semifinals his junior and senior seasons, the injury that ended his final high school football season early, and missing the state wrestling tournament by a single point as a senior.
Stevens pushed forward each time.
He attended the University of Washington, originally thinking he wanted to be a lawyer, but changed course after spending a stint as a volunteer coach at Tumwater under Sid Otton, and longtime assistant Pat Alexander.
“I did it for two years, and after the second year I was like, ‘After I graduate, I’m going back to college to get my teaching degree, because this is what I want to do,’ ” Stevens said.
Working with the football players, seeing how struggle led to growth, and how he could help led him to pursue his education degree in English and history at Washington State.
“That was the part that kind of hooked me,” Stevens said. “I relate to kids. I enjoy it. I love watching them improve and grow.”
Stevens started his teaching career at Tumwater, and spent a a total of five years assisting the football program — in college and as a staff member at the school — before moving to Black Hills when the school opened.
“It’s a really cool family atmosphere over there, so that was hard to leave, but I was also excited about starting something new,” he said.
Stevens helped build a new family atmosphere at Black Hills.
“I think he knows the culture well,” Claridge said. “I think, at Black Hills, we have a different culture than a lot of schools. On the football team we have a tight bond, but even in our school atmostphere as a whole, we have a tight bond. I think he can definitely see that, and it helps us on the football field as well.”
His first season as the program’s head coach, Stevens invited former standout Cody Peterson, who went on to play at Navy, back to speak to the players. Peterson taught the Wolves about brotherhood, and it’s a mantra they’ve stuck to since.
“We’ve tried to stay connected to our roots,” Stevens said. “While we haven’t always been as far (in the playoffs), we’ve been really successful. We’ve had quality teams, hard-working teams and great kids. We’ve wanted to continue that tradition, and keep pushing those same things we’ve stood for since we started.”
Stevens says this group has completely bought in to the philosophies the Black Hills staff has preached. The Wolves have committed in the weight room, committed to conditioning, and committed on the field.
The offense is versatile, and averaging 42.3 points per game — which is third-best in 2A — while the defense is allowing just two touchdowns per game.
“I just think it’s cool because we’re going to be that team that everyone remembers, that kind of started it,” Claridge said. “I just like the legacy we’re leaving for the underclassmen. We can really show that anything can be done.
“Before, we were like, ‘Oh, we’ll probably make it to (a certain) round and not make it (further).’ But, younger kids can see that we can make it past the (first round). You don’t have to have 85 guys on your roster to do that. We have like 30-40 guys on the sideline. I think that really shows what can be done.”
The Wolves just have to believe.