It's not how you start, but how you finish.
Thunder Mountain scored 47 unanswered points Friday night after an opening-drive interception was returned for a touchdown, and the Falcons improved to 3-0 with a 47-22 thrashing of visiting Nikiski.
After a game-opening Bulldogs drive stalled, Thunder Mountain took over at its own 16-yard line. Quarterback Camden Thomas dropped back and promptly delivered a pass right into the hands of Nikiski linebacker Julien Harris at the 17-yard line, and Harris took it all the way into the end zone for a 6-0 Nikiski lead after a failed two-point conversion.
"Pick-6 the other way; I did not think this evening was going to end up the way it did," Thunder Mountain coach Bill Byouer said. "Camden (Thomas) came off to the sideline and said, 'It's just one interception. We're fine. I can do this.'"
Thomas said the pick-6 was a quick shock the system, but he didn't lose confidence.
"We were a little nervous, but nobody's heads were down and we just kept our composure," he said. "We knew we could come back out on the next drive and hit them in the mouth."
And it took all of three plays and 38 seconds to do just that.
TMHS took advantage of a short field and Jesse Conrad opened with a 20-yard run up the left side, followed by a 15-yard run to pay dirt for Brad Soneson. Cameron Fronimos scored the two-point conversion for an 8-6 Falcons lead at the 8:37 mark of the first quarter, and the onslaught was on.
"It relieved me. I started growing gray hairs," Byouer said of the Falcons' quick turnaround. "Nikiski is a strong team, but we found the holes (in the defense). Coaches were working the sidelines and seeing where we could run, and we got great blocking by our line.
"They were opening up big holes."
The Thunder Mountain defense forced a three-and-out after Fronimos killed Nikiski's ensuing drive on third-and-three with a tackle in the backfield.
The Falcons then went 65 yards in nine plays with Thomas capping the drive with a quarterback keeper for a touchdown and a 16-6 TMHS lead at the end of the first quarter.
Nikiski started the second quarter with another three-and-out, and the Falcons again took over close to midfield.
Ty McMichael, making his debut for the Falcons, took a pitch for a 23-yard gain, followed by a 20-yard reception by Donald Stokes to set Thunder Mountain up at the Nikiski 2-yard line. Conrad took it straight up the gut for a touchdown and Ray Jones hauled in the two-point conversion pass for a 24-6 lead with 9:30 left in the half.
The Bulldogs again went three-and-out and Thunder Mountain took over at its own 45. A flag on the offense made it second-and-20, but Conrad kept the drive alive with a 5-yard gain on fourth-and-two.
Fronimos took a direct snap, spun through a crowd of defenders and went 32 yards for a touchdown and a 32-6 lead after a Conrad two-point conversion reception with 3:30 to play in the first half.
But the Falcons didn't stop there.
Nikiski managed its second first down of the game, but Ben Hotch picked off an errant Bulldogs throw and ran all the way to the Nikiski 19-yard line. McMichael ran to within inches of the end zone to set up first-and-goal, and Thomas again scored on a keeper up the middle.
The game was out of reach by halftime as TMHS led 39-6.
Twenty-five seconds into the second half, Fronimos ran right, slipped a tackle and cut back to midfield before taking it to the house on a spectacular 75-yard touchdown run. John Jolly, fresh off the JV roster, tacked on the two-point conversion for a 47-6 lead just 35 seconds short of a full half to play.
Nikiski scored the final 16 points of the game to cut into the deficit.
Bulldogs coach Ted Riddell said the key was in the trenches, where Thunder Mountain dominated the line of scrimmage.
"Up front, they're pretty strong. They're bigger than us and really handled the line of scrimmage," he said. "It made it pretty difficult with some of our blocking. It was a struggle up front and that was a big part of the game.
"But we challenged the kids to come out and play a better half than the first half and they did that."
The numbers backed up Riddell's assessment as five Falcons rushed for more than 40 yards. Fronimos had 146 yards and two touchdowns on just nine carries, Conrad had 70 yards and a score on nine carries, Jolly had 64 yards on 12 carries, Soneson had 55 yards and a score on four carries and McMichael had 41 yards on five attempts.
Thunder Mountain racked up a staggering 392 yards on the ground on 46 attempts for an average of 8.5 yards per carry.
The Falcons are now 3-0 and ranked No. 3 -- for now --in the Alaska Sports Broadcasting Network small-schools poll after winning just three games all of last season, which was the program's first.
But it's not how you start, it's how you finish, and Thomas said the team is well aware of that.
"It's a great feeling to be 3-0," he said. "Everybody is happy around here and the town is happy for us. But rankings aren't much. It's all about the ranking after the last week of the season -- after the state championship game."
Byouer said the Falcons have made a lot of progress, but it's only Week 3.
"It's three steps on the ladder of eleven steps. You can't be successful until progress is completed," he said. "This week at practice, these guys stepped up. They knew we were ranked third in the state but they did not get big-headed. They do not think that their stuff doesn't stink. They are working hard and I'm very impressed.
"Hats off to these kids."
Thunder Mountain is at Southeast Conference foe Ketchikan on Saturday.
Falcons 47, Bulldogs 22
TMHS 16 23 8 0 -- 42
NHS 6 0 0 16 -- 22
NHS -- Harris 17 interception return (pass failed), 9:15
TMHS --Soneson 15 run (Fronimos run), 8:37
TMHS -- Thomas 1 run (Jahn pass from Thomas), 1:21
TMHS --Conrad 2 run (Jones pass from Thomas), 9:30
TMHS -- Fronimos 32 run (Conrad pass from Thomas), 3:30
TMHS --Thomas 1 run (Jahn kick), 1:23
TMHS --Fronimos 75 run (Jolly run), 11:35
NHS --Spurgeon 5 pass from Anderson (Spurgeon pass from Anderson), 4:00
NHS --Spurgeon 4 run (Harris pass from Anderson), 4:12
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