LINCOLN -- Shawn Biltoft has been the head football coach at East Butler for 16 years.
He's been the elementary school principal for seven years, and before that he taught sixth grade for 11 years. So watching them grow up, Biltoft knows the 2017 cast of Tigers pretty darn well.
"Yeah, I've been able to see them all the way through," Biltoft said of the senior class. "It's been great."
He can recall watching the Dalton Bohac and the Trevor Havlovic coming to his youth football camps. Or the kids throwing the football around at recess.
"Pretty typical small-town atmosphere," Biltoft said. "And they're getting their chance to play out their dreams Monday morning."
Monday morning is the Class D-1 state football championship at Memorial Stadium. No. 10 East Butler (10-2), seeking its first crown since 1989, will play No. 5 South Loup (12-0).
The Tigers have made it this far behind a dual-threat offensive attack and a stout defense. Bohac, the starting quarterback, can beat teams with his arm and his legs (1,984 passing yards and 1,031 rushing yards), and Havlovic and Camden Robley are big targets in the passing game.
But there's another element to East Butler's success.
"We've been playing football together for so long," Bohac said. "And I think what makes us special is having the chemistry, and we just have so much fun on the field together."
Biltoft sees it every day in practice.
"This is a pretty tight-knit group," he said. "They know what to expect from each other, they know when to get on each other, when to kind of lay off. They really have made it fun as far as getting along."
Robley, the team's leader in receiving touchdowns with 14 (he had three in a semifinal win against Howells-Dodge), moved from Lincoln to the East Butler area in the seventh grade. He could tell then that maybe something special could happen on the gridiron.
"It's been a dream of ours ever since junior high," Robley said of playing inside Memorial Stadium. "We knew we were going to be good in high school; we just had to put the work in, and we knew we'd make it here."
Helping mold the Tigers was past playoff experience. This year's group of seniors reached the second round as sophomores and juniors. Those games gave the Tigers experience, Bohac said, but the quarterfinal losses also motivated the team to come back stronger.
So the team kept hitting the weight room and embracing practice. Simply put, "We just really love playing football," Robley said.
There have been a couple of bumps this year. East Butler was edged by Howells-Dodge in the season opener. Palmer also handed the Tigers defeat on a rainy night.
"I think that Palmer game was really just a wake-up call to us," Bohac said. "It kind of flipped a switch for the rest of the season. It gave us some motivation throughout the season to not let games really end up like that, because that was really disappointing. So from there, we really turned it on."
East Butler has won six straight since that 6-0 loss to Palmer. That included playoff wins against No. 1 Howells-Dodge on Monday and No. 2 Creighton in the quarterfinals.
"I think the expectations were definitely there," Biltoft said. "Not everything played out exactly how we wanted it to go, but on this run the kids have really stepped up, played really good football coming into the playoffs and throughout the last couple of weeks."