CLINTON — It’s a game Clinton has waited for almost since the moment its heartbroken players walked off the TouVelle Stadium field on a chilly Wednesday night last October.

It’s a situation the Clinton football program hasn’t been in for decades: trying to go 4-0 to start the season.

The River Kings return to TouVelle Stadium, Bettendorf’s home field, Friday night to face the two-time defending conference champions who have won 21 Mississippi Athletic Conference games in a row since a 17-0 loss to North Scott on the final night of the 2006 regular season. The River Kings (3-0) haven’t beaten Bettendorf (3-0) since 1991, a span of 18 games, including a pair of losses last season.

It was that second one, though, in the substate round of postseason in Class 4A that provides extra fuel.

“We still kind of have that bitter taste in our mouths from last season,” senior defensive tackle Austin Krick said, remembering Bettendorf’s late scoring march that squelched Clinton’s upset hopes in a 28-21 victory. “We were so close and let it slip.”

While the players have taken the company line that it’s one game at a time, there’s no denying that — while they’ve built their 3-0 record — they were quite aware that Bettendorf was on Week 4 of the schedule.

“They’ve been on our minds all summer — ever since we walked off that field we’ve talked about it,” senior quarterback Jake Mangler said. “We’ve worked hard because of that game. Now it’s here. It’s going to be a big task taking them down. We have to play together. If we play hard every play and keep them contained, I think we’ll be all right.”

Unfortunately for Clinton, the Bulldogs remember that game, too. They remember how hard they had to work to win that one, just a year removed from winning the seventh state title in school history. They saw how much Clinton had improved from the regular-season meeting — a 35-14 Bettendorf win at Coan Field.

They won’t see Clinton’s 3-0 record and sell it short because the River Kings’ first three opponents are a combined 0-9 and the River Kings still came up two votes short of joining No. 4 Bettendorf in the Iowa Associated Press Class 4A rankings.

“I think if we hadn’t played them last year, the answer would be that we wouldn’t know (how good they are),” Bettendorf coach Aaron Wiley said. “But we know what those kids can do because we played them when they were juniors. A lot of their kids played against us last year, so we’re expecting a great team coming into Bettendorf to play us.”

To hear Wiley talk, you’d consider his perennial state powerhouse program an underdog.

“I don’t understand why they’re not getting more publicity, notoriety,” he said. “I don’t know how you can make a top 10 in the state and not have Clinton. We’re going to have our hands full, and we’re going to have to play great or we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”

The River Kings have been more than a handful for their first three opponents, rolling over Davenport North, Davenport West and Burlington by a combined 131-13 score. None of those schools will be confused with the Bulldogs, however.

“I think we’re really ready to play Bettendorf,” Clinton senior running back David Johnson said. “Everyone has gotten bigger, stronger, faster, and we’ve become a better team.

Wiley, for one, is impressed.

“I just think they have unbelievable talent,” he said. “I was just talking to one of the other (MAC) coaches, and I think (Johnson) may be the best tailback I’ve seen in our league in a long time. But he’s by no means a one-man show. Mangler hurt us last year; he’s a very talented kid. The other running backs who come in are very talented. They’re great up front. Defensively they’re tough. I don’t really see a weakness. A lot of times you play a team where you say, ‘They have this kid who’s very good, but they’re not very good here and we can attack there,’ but I don’t see that with Clinton.”

Clinton has been explosive early in each of its games. The River Kings have been able to switch to cruise control after the first quarter of the first three games.

“The coaches have told us we have to come out with intensity in the first half,” Mangler said. “If we come out hard it’s going to kind of demoralize the other team. As long as we sustain it the whole game it’s going to give us an advantage.”

Bettendorf, though, isn’t likely to roll over if Clinton goes ahead early. Last year’s substate game proved that. The River Kings scored first and rallied after Bettendorf went ahead and retook the lead, 21-20 midway through the fourth quarter.

“We know what Bettendorf possesses,” Mangler said. “We know what’s going to be in front of us. I think we’re all ready for them. We all remember walking off that field last year with that feeling, and we don’t want to let it happen again, so I think we’re going to be ready for the game.”

They should be. They’ve been thinking about it for a long time.

“If we can keep playing as one team we can do some things that haven’t been done here in quite awhile,” Mangler said.

They’re hoping to do something Friday night that Clinton fans haven’t seen since 1991.

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