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By SPENCER GLEASON
Daily News Sports Editor
Ketchikan High School football coach Jim Byron received text messages from some of his players on Monday morning. Still reeling in the emotions of what had happened just a couple days before — a 55-0 loss against the Eielson Air Force Base High School Ravens in the Division III state semifinal on Saturday — the Kings were faced with reality.
Monday was just another day. They wouldn’t be getting together with their teammates at Esther Shea Field for practice and preparing for their next opponent. The run for a state championship was over.
“They woke up and realized that there wasn’t practice,” Byron said. “That was hard for them.”
Since early summer, the Kings had been throwing the football around. Despite a 14-game losing streak entering the 2018 season, the Kings were determined to change their fortune.
And that’s exactly what they did.
With 12 seniors accounting for nearly half the team — the most they’d had in recent memory — Kayhi was bound for a memorable ride.
“Of all the kids I’ve ever coached, this team — together — there weren’t any individual cliques,” Byron said.
Byron had coached the senior group up through the ranks of the Ketchikan Youth Football League since they were in fourth grade. His son, Stevie, was one of them.
“Everybody really supported each other,” he continued. “It was just fun; it was one big family.”
The Kings flipped the script opening their season with their first victory since 2016 — a 59-14 win over Redington High School on their home turf.
Just one win was nice. But it was a sign of things to come.
Kayhi followed that performance with victories over Valdez and Nikiski high schools, scoring more than 50 points in each of the first three contests.
“Being undefeated on the road (during the regular season) and the offensive numbers that we put up, that’s kind of unheard of,” Byron said.
Kayhi’s lone hiccup would come in week four against Houston High School — a two-point loss that would eventually send the Kings on the road in the playoffs.
“If things had gone differently, we could’ve had a home playoff game against Barrow (High School),” Byron said. “We would’ve been undefeated in our conference.”
Kayhi defeated Barrow in Barrow during the regular season — an 8-6 battle on the Arctic Ocean coast. Byron and his coaching staff had promised the team that they’d do the Arctic Plunge with a win in the Kings pocket. And Byron was true to his word.
“That Barrow game is something that I’ll never forget,” he said. “I remember toward the end — with about 40 seconds to go — (defensive coordinator) Ryan (Varela) and I were jumping up and down, hugging one another. I turned to him and said, ‘Now we have to go jump in the Arctic.’”
The Kings jumped in — and jumped right back out.
That tight-knit camaraderie helped carry the Kings to a 6-1 regular season record — their best since 2014 — and one of the few winning football seasons this century.
After the regular season, eight Kings were named to the All Peninsula Conference team — the most in program history.
Saturday’s playoff appearance was the Kings’ first since 2013. But that’s where the season’s ride ended.
“It was just a weird moment after the game,” Byron said. “(We) didn’t know what to think. I think Ryan (Varela) felt the same way; I could see it in his face, too.
“We congratualted the other team and wished them luck in the next round,” Byron continued. “And we walked across the field, and Ryan just kind of kneeled down, looking around. I could tell it just kind of hit him, too. It was just a weird way to end it, after having such a good season. It was really emotional after the game — all the boys. There were some tears. There was some consoling going on. It was pretty emotional.”
But in times of saddness the joy is remembered.
“Now it’s time to sit back, relax and take it all in,” Byron said. “I think, overall, the kids are pretty happy with this season.”