Truckee and Moapa Valley must have gotten a kick out of the media headlines at the start of the season - ones suggesting that any football program outside of theirs was favored to win the Division I-A state championship.
Their division may have gained nine large schools from Nevada's highest classification during the offseason, including perennial Division I playoff contender Cheyenne. But the Wolverines and Pirates, winners of a combined 26 state titles, are not ready to move aside for anybody.
The smallest schools in the Division I-A (formerly 3A) have once again proven that they are the class of the league, despite competing against schools up to four times their size.
Truckee and Moapa Valley will meet for a fifth consecutive year in the state championship game, scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 17, in Las Vegas.
"It's a statement to the tradition at both schools. It shows that we can compete with pretty much anyone, and I think it's pretty cool that both schools have carried on their winning ways," said Moapa Valley head coach Brent Lewis in a telephone interview Thursday.
Moapa Valley had 573 students last year, said NIAA assistant director Donnie Nelson, while Truckee started this year with 609 students, according to athletic director Jaime Legare. By comparison, several of the newest members of the league boast enrollments greater than 2,000, including Cheyenne, which Truckee defeated 26-18 in last week's state semifinal.
The disparity in enrollment means little in terms of competitiveness on the field, however.
Moapa Valley has played for the last seven state championships and Truckee the last five. The Wolverines have won 11 state titles all time (eight in the 3A and three in the 2A) and the Pirates have 15 (three in the 3A, three in the 2A, six in the 1A and three in 6-man).
The Wolverines defeated the Pirates each of the past three years in the title game - 21-6 last year, 27-7 in 2010 and 27-0 in 2009 - while a fast, athletic Moapa Valley team defeated Truckee 35-16 in the 2008 championship.
The annual clash for top bragging rights has developed into quite a rivalry. Yet both sides hold a high level of respect for what the other does.
"We emulate each other in a lot of ways," said Truckee head coach Bob Shaffer. "And I think the respect comes from the fact that both programs have done exceptionally well over a long period of time - we're not just one-year wonders. So because of that, we know, and I think they know too, how much work both schools have done, how good the coaching staffs are, and how much class both schools play with out on the field."
"We sure have a tremendous amount of respect for them," he said of the Wolverines. "They probably like playing us quite a bit, because they've whooped up on us a little bit the last few years. But yeah, I think there's a mutual respect."
The fact that Truckee won the last three meetings, holding the Pirates to a combined 13 points, has the Southern power licking its chops for a shot at revenge.
"They want it pretty stinkin' bad," Lewis said. "We've had a bitter pill to swallow three years in a row, and we'd really like to get rid of that sour taste. It will take an outstanding effort, because Truckee is an outstanding team with an awesome defense. So we know we have our work cut out for us."
The same could be said for the Wolverines. Shaffer said they'll need a nearly flawless performance to take down the Pirates for a fourth straight year, as Moapa Valley appears as explosive as ever, both on paper and film.
The Pirates, at 12-1 on the year, with their only loss coming against Arizona state champion Blue Ridge in their opener, have outscored their opponents 634-131. They've amassed 5,595 yards of total offense, averaging better than 430 yards per game - 339.6 rushing and 90.8 passing.
Lewis credited his team's blocking on the line, as well as its athleticism at the skill positions, for the big offensive year.
"We've become a lot more diversified this year," the coach said. "I think last year we were pretty predictable with what we could do. This year we've tried to be more balanced. We've got four of five confident kids we can give the ball to, based on who has the hot hand that game."
Senior running back and linebacker Conner Mortensen has had the hottest hand for the Pirates. He's among the state leaders with 1,746 yards rushing on 182 attempts, with 32 rushing touchdowns and 35 total. Sean McConnell has rushed for 912 yards on 68 carries, with nine TDs, while Kasen Hughes has 787 yards on 59 carries, and Jared Repp has 461 yards on 59 carries. Senior quarterback Josh Repp has completed 47 of his 100 passes for 935 yards, with 10 TDs and five interceptions.
On the defensive side, Hughes leads the way with 95 tackles, Cody Tolbert has a team-high nine sacks and Lance Hilton has five interceptions. As a whole, the Moapa Valley defense can pack a hit, Shaffer.
"Just watching them on film, we know they're going to play very physical. They have good athletes, they got size, they play at full speed, they hit you hard, they tackle well, and their running backs can be elusive, but at other times, they feel just as good running you over," Shaffer said.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, enter state with a 10-1 record, with their one loss coming against Fernley during the regular season. They outscored opponents 425-110, averaging about 403 yards per contest - 224 rushing and 179.2 passing. They've won 46 of their last 47 games.
Truckee is at a disadvantage in terms of travel, however, as the Wolverines will spend most of their day Friday on a bus in the Nevada desert. Shaffer said the team will leave Truckee about 8:30 a.m. Friday, slipping in a light practice once in Las Vegas.
"Anytime you're away from home and out of your routine, not sleeping in your own bed, it's a little bit of a distraction. But these kids are seasoned veterans, so to speak, and I think they know how to travel and how to approach this like it's a state game, rather than a trip to Vegas to have fun and sightsee," Shaffer said.