At 5-foot-8, 155 pounds, Mario Gobbato was not all that big in stature, but he certainly left his mark on the Blaine football program.
"To step into Mario's shoes - those are some pretty big shoes to fill," Blaine coach Jay Dodd said in a phone interview. "The amount he carried the ball for us and the yards and touchdowns Mario accumulated the past couple of years, he's kind of a legend here in Blaine."
That's what chasing the state's single-season rushing record for two straight seasons and surpassing 2,500 yards each year will do for you.
Cole Muder, the Borderites' running back tasked with filling those tremendous shoes left when Gobbato graduated last spring and headed to play at Montana State Northern, said he realizes there is a little extra pressure being the next Blaine tailback.
"I do think it's put a lot more weight on me being the next guy," Muder said in a phone interview. "Guys knew that I could run the ball. They saw last year that me and Mario could both play. Now, all my teammates are looking to me to make plays and get the offense going."
Though he knows it will be difficult to live up to the legendary status of Gobbato, it's a challenge Muder has met like taking on a linebacker.
Through the first four weeks of his senior season, Muder stands fourth in the Northwest Conference with 529 yards and five touchdowns on 80 carries. He had his biggest game yet last week, rushing for 214 yards and three touchdowns on just 18 carries to help the Borderites to their first victory of the year, a 45-8 win over Bellingham.
Now he and Blaine hope to carry that momentum into the Class 1A Northwest Conference portion of their schedule, which starts on Friday, Oct. 4, with a game at Lynden Christian.
"I think the biggest thing for us has got to be our defense and stopping the run," Muder said. "We need to stop the opponent from running the ball. We've given up way too many yards on the ground early this year, and we need to cut that down during conference play."
Muder, a safety, certainly will play a big role in that, as he is Blaine's lone returning full-season starter from last year.
"Guys look to him when he's the one guy we have coming back," Dodd said. "More importantly, he plays safety. When you play safety, you can help make sure everybody else gets lined up properly. If our only returning guy was a nose guard, he wouldn't be able to help with that, but Cole can see everything. He can get the linebackers and outside linebackers in the right position and communicate with the other defensive backs. He's like the quarterback of our defense - he knows what we're trying to accomplish."
Muder also understands what the team is trying to accomplish on offense, and he's one of their biggest weapons.
The Borderites underwent a bit of an offensive metamorphosis this year, integrating a spread passing attack into its traditional pro-style base offense.
In fact, during the first two games this season, Blaine even utilized Muder at receiver for much of the game, though he did manage to surpass 100 yards rushing in each game.
"Cole has a tremendous amount of versatility," Dodd said. "Not only is he a heck of a running back, he's a heck of a football player. He's good on defense, and he can catch the ball. We put him out there to see what he could do, and he showed he can be a heck of a receiver for us, too."
The Borderites already knew he could be a force in the backfield, as they used him there quite a bit as a junior. He had a break out game against Bellingham, when he rushed for 188 yards on 19 carries to spell Gobbato, who rushed for 301 yards and three TDs in the game.
"I knew after that game, everybody was kind of looking to me for this year," Muder said. "I always kind of liked that pressure on my shoulders. I liked knowing that guys were depending on me."
To respond, he said he tried to emulate the guy he was replacing as best as he could.
"He showed me you need to work as hard as you can to get every little step better," Muder said. "Every read had to be better. He was like a perfectionist. The way he ran the ball was amazing. I tried to take after what he was doing."
Not surprisingly, Dodd said he sees a lot of similarities between Gobbato and Muder.
"Both have great vision and great balance," Dodd said. "When it's time to hit the hole, they accelerate through the hole and accelerate through the tackle. You know, they're very similar in their styles. Cole does a tremendous job of reading the blocks and making cuts off the blocks."
But blocks are far from the only thing Muder is good at reading.
As one of the team captains, he's also shown an affinity for reading the pulse of the team.
And when he sees something he's not pleased with, he's not afraid to step up and get things changed.
Two weeks ago, in between the Borderites' losses to Lord Tweedsmuir and Lakewood, Muder said he noticed a lack of discipline in practices and during games.
"After practice, we came together as a team and I talked to them, and after we broke as a team, Cole said, 'Guys hang around for a second,'" Dodd said. "The coaches headed back in, and the team just stuck around for a while. I don't know what was said, but I can tell you the next practice was a whole lot better."
Muder said he was nervous about calling that players-only meeting, but it was something that he felt needed to be done.
"I reminded everyone that we're role models for our school and we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard," Muder said. "We needed to smarten up, and it was time to fix it right then."
Muder said he's been pleased with the team's improved discipline since the meeting.
"I think he's a great leader," Dodd said. "Not only is a vocal leader - he's a leader by example. He's a great guy to have in the locker room and a good teammate. He helps young kids along and let's them know what's needed."
Fortunately for the Borderites, Muder learned the right way to do things from a legend, and now he's just passing that along.
"Mario was one of the hardest workers I've ever seen in my life," Muder said. "He constantly was trying to get better. He was an amazing person on the field and off it, and that's something I've done my best to carry on."
Reach David Rasbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2286.
Reach DAVID RASBACH at email@example.com or call 715-2271.