DEMING - When they flip the light switch on Friday, Aug. 31, at Bob Tisdale Field, Mount Baker football coach Ron Lepper is going to learn a whole lot more about his team than he probably did during the first 15 days of practice this summer.
"We can't help that we lost some pretty decent guys," Lepper said. "You don't lose a couple of all-state guys like Levi Wigg and Alec Postlewait and a number of other really good players and not feel it. ... We've had some guys that have been waiting for their opportunity, and I think they'll do just fine, but you never know exactly how they're going to react to playing on Friday night."
Wigg, Postlewait and those other talented seniors from last year set the bar pretty high by helping the Mountaineers finish second in the NWC 2A standings and advance to the postseason for the second time in six years.
"We want to make sure we don't drop off too much," Lepper said. "We have some juniors and seniors we think are going to do a really good job for us. ... We understand that mistakes are going to happen, but it's a matter of how do you handle it when they do."
One of the guys that went through that maturation process last year as a first-year starter is junior quarterback Andrew Zender.
Zender returns his top receiving threat from last year in senior Zan Roman, along with senior Jake Schleimer, who probably would have been the star running back for Mount Baker last year if not for Wigg.
"Jake is probably, right now, one of those guys we're going to lean on a little bit more, just because he's a senior and he's been through a few battles with us," Lepper said. "He's earned the opportunity to be that guy. I really like how hard he's worked this summer and how he looks now."
Junior Izaiha Schwinden and senior Kaleb Brownfield also should get a number of carries behind a rebuilt offensive line that must replace four of six starters. Fortunately, the two returning seniors are guard Jake Larsen and center Tyrel Cronk, who is as good as they come.
"We've got six, seven guys competing for the other four spots, and we're not sure how that's going to be yet," Lepper said. "That's something we've got to get going. I don't care what offense you're running, if you can't block, it's hard to do anything - it doesn't matter who your skill guys are. That's a concern for us."
There will be plenty of new faces on defense, as well, but the linebacking crew should be a strength with Cronk in the middle, along with Zender, Schleimer and Chase Toctocan.
All four starters on the defensive line will be new. The front runners are seniors Sterling Honeycutt, Matt Scoles, Dalton Munsell and Marcus Thomas.
Roman returns to lead a rebuilt secondary that could also include Schwinden, Seth Bass, Dylan Howard and Joey Walton.
"I think we've got some really good pieces," Lepper said. "We've just got to figure out how to put it all together. That's always the key to coaching."
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH
It's usually not difficult to find Cronk on the field - just follow the loudest pops. His toughness and experience will be needed in the middle of a reworked offensive line and defense.
Continuing the family tradition at Mount Baker, Schleimer is a punishing running back, who had some big runs last year and should fill the featured role nicely after the graduation of Levi Wigg.
After starting as a sophomore, Zender worked hard over the offseason in the weight room and at summer camps. He should feel a bit more comfortable and be able to take more of a leadership role.
THREE KEYS TO THE SEASON
1. Preseason progress
With the move to 1A, Mount Baker will play four games against 2A opponents before it sees a game with playoff implications. Expect the coaching staff to use those games like an NFL preseason to experiment and answer questions.
2. Keep on running
It just wouldn't be Mount Baker if the Mountaineers didn't come out looking to play smash-mouth football. There are still plenty of horses in the barn, led by Jake Schleimer, but the line must be rebuilt.
3. Get defensive
Despite all the points Mount Baker scored in 2011, the Mountaineers' defensive improvement keyed their strong finish. They need to make more key stops this year.
Aug. 31 Bellingham 7 p.m.
Sept. 7 Sultan 7 p.m.
Sept. 14 at Lynden 7 p.m.
Sept. 21 Cedarcrest 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 Nooksack Valley* 7 p.m.
Oct. 5 at Lynden Christian* 7 p.m.
Oct. 12 Friday Harbor* 6 p.m.
Oct. 19 at Blaine* 7 p.m.
Oct. 26 Meridian* 7 p.m.
*NWC 1A game
2011 RESULTS (7-3, 7-2 NWC, 6-1 NWC 2A)
at Meridian L 19-6
Anacortes* W 14-13
Bellingham* W 41-12
at Burlington-Edison* W 42-7
Blaine* W 44-41
Ferndale* W 21-14
at Lynden* L 35-0
at Sehome (at Civic Stadium)* W 55-0
Squalicum* W 42-0
CLASS 2A NORTHWEST DISTRICT PLAYOFFS
Archbishop Murphy L 41-27
*NWC 2A game
2011 STATS LEADERS
RUSHING Att. Yards Avg. TD
Levi Wigg 155 1,413 9.1 21
Jake Schleimer* 98 680 6.9 6
Aaron Baddeley 23 243 10.6 2
PASSING Cmp. Att. Yards TD Int.
Andrew Zender* 40 93 776 7 4
RECEIVING Rec. Yards Avg. TD
Zan Roman* 15 382 25.5 5
Levi Wigg 11 207 18.8 1
Aaron Baddeley 5 92 18.4 1
No. Player Yr. Ht. Wt. Pos.
2 Dylan Howard Jr. 6-0 152 RB/DB
3 Balyn Jacoby Fr. 5-10 156 QB/LB
5 Zach Yurchuk So. 5-8 126 RB/DB
10 Edgar Zavala Sr. 5-7 166 WR/DB
11 Andrew Zender Jr. 6-0 177 QB/LB
12 Seth Bass Jr. 5-9 146 QB/DB
21 Joey Walton Jr. 5-7 144 RB/DB
22 Kaleb Brownfield Sr. 5-10 171 RB/DB
23 Johnny Mata So. 5-6 127 RB/DB
25 Liam Short So. 5-9 182 RB/LB
26 Zan Roman Sr. 6-3 172 WR/DB
33 Tyson Ortloff Jr. 5-9 156 RB/DB
39 Jake Schleimer Sr. 5-11 194 RB/LB
44 Izaiha Schwinden Jr. 5-9 155 RB/DB
50 Jax Toctocan So. 5-8 152 OL/LB
52 Tyrel Cronk Sr. 6-0 216 OL/LB
53 Cody Larson Jr. 5-11 184 OL/LB
55 Danny Kirkpatrick Jr. 5-9 207 OL/LB
56 Alex Ray Jr. 5-8 173 OL/DL
57 Marcus Thomas Sr. 5-11 196 OL/DL
58 Chase Toctocan Sr. 6-0 187 OL/LB
61 Sterling Honeycutt Sr. 5-10 211 OL/DL
65 Matt Scoles Sr. 6-0 212 OL/DL
66 Max Martinson Jr. 5-11 211 OL/DL
67 Jake Oiness Jr. 6-3 191 OL/DL
68 Manuel Mendez Jr. 6-2 233 OL/DL
73 Jake Larsen Sr. 5-10 261 OL/DL
83 Travis Lindsay Jr. 5-11 155 WR/DB
84 Alex Tyska Jr. 5-9 154 WR/DB
89 Dalton Munsell Sr. 6-2 176 TE/DL
90 Hunter Gates Jr. 6-0 196 TE/DL
99 Carsen Schmidt So. 6-4 181 TE/DE
Reach DAVID RASBACH at email@example.com or call 715-2271.