BATTLE GROUND - All the way from the Pan Dome to the Tacoma Dome, it's time to celebrate. For the first time in the school history, the Mount Baker football team is headed to the state semifinals.
Four times previously - 1986, '94, '96 and '97 - the Mountaineers had reached the state quarterfinals, only to come up short of reaching the final four.
And for much of the first half of a Class 1A state quarterfinal against La Center on Saturday, Nov. 17, at Battle Ground District Stadium, it appeared Mount Baker might again miss out, as three fumbles, two of which were lost, resulted in an early hole against the fifth-ranked team in the state.
But the Mountaineers responded with an unlikely hero, a stingy defense and 24 straight points to grab a 24-9 victory.
"I'm happy for the community," Mount Baker coach Ron Lepper said. "It means a lot to the kids that battled to get here, and it means a lot to this community. It's a small community, but a lot of them made the trip down here to support us today. Sometimes it's good, and sometimes it's bad, but they're always behind us, and I'm happy we were able to do it for them today."
Mount Baker (11-1) will next face Montesano on either Friday or Saturday, Nov. 23 or 24, at the Tacoma Dome.
"It's an amazing feeling to know we're moving on," running back Izaiha Schwinden said. "It's been a dream of everybody that has ever played here, and to be a part of the team that did it, I mean, wow."
Schwinden finished with 70 yards on 10 carries, including a 53-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, while Jake Schleimer added 151 yards on 22 punishing carries and another fourth-quarter touchdown.
But long before then, Mount Baker struggled in the first half - kind of like it did a week earlier against Woodland.
On the Mountaineers' first possession, Edgar Zavala had to reach up for a snap on a fourth-down punt, and ended up fumbling. He recovered, but was tackled at his own 19.
Four plays later, Conner Fulton bulled in from 2 yards out to make it 6-0.
Mount Baker lost its next fumble on its next possession near midfield, and the Wildcats capitalized with a field goal to make it 9-0.
After Zavala made a 22-yard field goal to cut the lead to 9-3 with 7:41 remaining in the first half, Mount Baker appeared headed for at least a tying touchdown, until yet another fumble was lost at the La Center 2.
"I think the difference is we have a better perspective when mistakes like that happen," Lepper said. "We as a coaching staff and a team trust ourselves. I don't get as angry. I'm not happy when things like that happen, but guys are not afraid to go out on the field after they do. A couple of those guys that made mistakes, we went back to them later in the game, and they came up big for us."
Though he wasn't responsible for any of the first-half fumbles, nobody came up much bigger than junior receiver Dylan Howard.
With leading receiver Zan Roman out with a shoulder injury suffered early in last week's first-round win, the Mountaineers turned to Howard time after time on little short hitches.
"I was a little nervous all week," Howard admitted. "With Zan out, I knew I would be starting, but my teammates and my coaches had confidence in me, and I'm just happy that I was able to help them out."
He sure did that, as he accounted for all six of Mount Baker pass completions for 77 yards - the biggest of which came on the Mountaineers' first possession of the second half, as he out jumped La Center's Dylan King along the left sideline, and took it the rest of the way for a 28-yard touchdown from quarterback Andrew Zender.
"Me and Z were talking about that play at halftime, and he said if (King) gave me a little bit of a cushion to run a hitch and if he played off me a little bit to run a go. He played off me a little bit, so I ran a go, and Z read it right and made a perfect pass."
Zavala's extra point gave Mount Baker a 10-9 lead with 7:05 left in the third quarter.
The Mount Baker defense took over from there, as it forced three punts, recovered two fumbles and got a fourth-down stop to end the Wildcats' six second-half possessions, allowing the Wildcats only 69 yards after the half and 140 for the game.
"Our defense played great after the first quarter, and they really didn't play all that bad in the first quarter - we just gave them a short field," Lepper said. "We had a bunch of guys step up and make huge plays for us. This really was a team win for us."
Schwinden started the process of securing that win on a third-and-11 sweep around the right end from the Mountaineers' 47 midway through the fourth. The junior broke away from the La Center linebackers, stiff armed a defensive back at about the 10 and leaped for the end zone from about the 5. Schwinden was given credit for making it, and he certainly felt he did, as Mount Baker took a 17-9 lead with 7:32 remaining.
"I just kept thinking, 'Get the ball across,'" Schwinden said. "That's the reason I dove, was to stretch it in there. ... It was an amazing feeling. We had the lead, and we had the momentum."
And Schleimer's 24-yard rumble 2:03 to play made sure the Mountaineers wouldn't lose it or Mount Baker's first trip to the Tacoma Dome.
"It's just unbelievable," Howard said. "We've all worked so hard to get there. Something like this means a lot to our community, and it means a lot to us, too."
Reach David Rasbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2286.
Mount Baker 0 3 7 14- 24
La Center 9 0 0 0- 9
LC - Conner Fulton 2 run (kick blocked)
LC - Conner Wonderly 24 FG
MB - Edgar Zavala 22 FG
MB - Dylan Howard 28 pass from Andrew Zender (Zavala kick)
MB - Izaiha Schwinden 53 run (Zavala kick)
MB - Jake Schleimer 24 run (Zavala kick)
First downs 15 10
Rushing Att-Yards 43-233 40-114
Comp-Att-Int 6-10-0 3-70-0
Passing yards 77 26
Penalties-yards 3-24 1-10
Fumbles-lost 3-2 5-2
RUSHING - Mount Baker: Jake Schleimer 22-151, Andrew Zender 7-(-7), Izaiha Schwinden 10-70, Kaleb Brownfield 3-25, Edgar Zavala 1-(-6). La Center: Taylor Dreyer 17-70, Conner Fulton 9-31, Tyrone Kulla 4-1, Jared Huddleston 5-9, Dylan King 4-4, Jacob Mendez 1-(-1).
PASSING - Mount Baker: Andrew Zender 6-10-0-77. La Center: Dylan King 3-7-0-26.
RECEIVING - Mount Baker: Dylan Howard 6-77. La Center: Jared Huddleston 1-7, AJ Myers 2-19.
Reach DAVID RASBACH at email@example.com or call 715-2271.