BELLINGHAM - A sly grin developed on Mount Baker coach Ron Lepper's face when running back Izaiha Schwinden's recently lightened work load was brought up during a postgame interview.
Running mate Liam Short had seemingly switched roles with Schwinden as the Mountaineers' featured back during the second half of the year. Schwinden has still produced, but perhaps his abilities were masked just enough for La Center's defense to forget about his game-breaking aptitude.
The shifty Mount Baker senior scored seven touchdowns - five rushing and two receiving - to lead the No. 4-ranked Mountaineers to a 63-33 Class 1A State Playoff quarterfinal win against the previously unbeaten No. 2-ranked La Center Wildcats Saturday, Nov. 23, at Civic Stadium.
"It makes me feel great," Schwinden said," but it was also our linemen and Liam, because he gave great fakes and our linemen were able to hold and get blocks they needed to."
The 63 points was a season-high, and La Center hadn't given up more than 28 points in a game. Mount Baker advances to the state semifinals and will face undefeated No.1-ranked Cascade Christian either Friday-Saturday, Nov. 29-30, at the Tacoma Dome.
Schwinden finished with a team-high 134 yards on 18 carries and ran for scores of 12, 2, 1, 28 and 4 yards. He also caught three of quarterback Andrew Zender's six completions for a team-high 73 yards, scoring on pass plays of 42 and 17 yards.
Lepper didn't keep track of Schwinden's touchdowns, but he was quick to highlight both his blocked PAT and field goal. Lepper also noticed his blocking, which helped spring Short for 94 yards on 13 rushes.
"Izaiha ended up being the featured guy tonight and I'm OK with that," Lepper said.
Schwinden may have best symbolized Mount Baker's offensive assault, but Lepper and Schwinden heaped praise onto the Mountaineers' offensive line, which had to make some adjustments after La Center gave Baker a defensive look it hadn't seen on film this year.
The Wildcats played with no down linemen the entire first half. All eight players in the box stood 3 yards off the ball in a two-point stance. Lepper said La Center ran something similar during Mount Baker's 24-9 win during last year's quarterfinals.
Baker's line still controlled the trenches, helping the Mountaineers score touchdowns on their first five possessions.
It was an early defensive three-and-out, though, that turned the game's momentum in Baker's favor.
Zender navigated the Mountaineers on an eight-play, 64-yard TD drive on their opening possession following the Wildcats' punt. Zender capped the drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Gates, who hauled in the pass with one arm in the back of the end zone.
La Center back Conner Fulton, who finished with 21 carries for a team-high 106 yards and four touchdowns, exchanged TDs with Schwinden on the teams' next six possessions during the rest of the first and most of the second quarter. Baker owned a 21-19 lead with 1:27 to go until halftime thanks to a La Center blocked PAT and an unsuccessful two-point conversion.
Then came one of Mount Baker's most critical possessions, Lepper said. Zender led Mount Baker on a three-play, 74-yard touchdown drive to extend the Moutaineers' lead to 29-19 in only 36 seconds. Schwinden finished the drive with a 42-yard TD catch.
"They were all big, obviously," said Lepper of Schwinden's touchdowns," but the real big one, I thought, was right at the end of the half when we threw that pass play. That was a tough catch. He threw it right were it needed to be, and he was able to get into the end zone. That was a great answer and pushed our lead to 10."
Mount Baker took a 17-point advantage 4:22 into the second half, forced back-to-back La Center three-and-outs and then extending its lead to 43-19 with a Schwinden 28-yard TD run around the right side with 10 seconds to go until the fourth quarter.
Short finished Mount Baker's huge offensive night with a 9-yard TD to put the Mountaineers in front 63-27 with 5:09 to play.
"Our offensive line worked really hard this week, because they knew La Center was pretty tough," Schwinden said. "Our linemen got good blocks, and the backs carried out their fakes. I just knew that everyone in that locker room wanted it really bad and wanted to return to the Tacoma Dome."
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for Whatcom County sports updates.
La Center 6 13 0 14- 33
Mount Baker 14 15 14 20- 66
MB - Hunter Gates 8 pass from Andrew Zender (Alex Tyska kick)
LC - Conner Fulton 2 run (kick fail)
MB - Izaiha Schwinden 12 run (Tyska kick)
LC - Fulton 12 run (run fail)
MB - Schwinden 2 run (Tyska kick)
LC - Fulton 1 run (Conner Wonderly kick)
MB - Schwinden 42 pass from Zender (Zender run)
MB - Schwinden 1 run (Tyska kick)
MB - Schwinden 28 run (Tyska kick)
MB - Schwinden 17 pass from Zender (kick fail)
LC - Jacob Livingston 1 run (Wonderly pass from Wyatt Aguirre)
MB - Schwinden 4 run (Tyska kick)
MB - Liam Short 9 run (Tyska kick)
LC - Fulton 4 run (run fail)
First downs 25 16
Rushing Att-Yards 49-312 44-228
Comp-Att-Int 6-10-0 6-13-1
Passing yards 107 51
Penalties-yards 3-15 1-10
Fumbles-lost 1-0 4-1
RUSHING - La Center: Conner Fulton 21-106, Wyatt Aguirre 15-90, Conner Wonderly 4-16, Jacob Livingston 2-(-1), Matt Braaten 1-17, Trevor Roberson 1-0. Mount Baker: Izaiha Schwinden 18-134, Liam Short 13-94, Andrew Zender 13-59, Balyn Jacoby 2-9, Travis Lindsey 1-11, J.T. Keeney 1-4, Joey Walton 1-1.
PASSING - La Center: Wyatt Aguirre 6-12-1-51, Conner Fulton 0-1-0-0. Mount Baker: Andrew Zender 6-10-0-107.
RECEIVING - La Center: Conner Wonderly 3-32, Matt Braaten 3-19. Mount Baker: Izaiha Schwinden 3-73, Joey Walton 1-18, Travis Lindsey 1-8, Hunter Gates 1-8.
Reach ANDREW LANG at firstname.lastname@example.org or call ext. 862.