Mountaineers set new level of excellence

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 30, 2013 

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Mount Baker's Andrew Zender runs for an eight yard run as Mount Baker beat Cascade Christian 31-28 in overtime in a 1A Washington State Football semifinal game at the Tacoma Dome on Nov. 30, 2013 in Tacoma.

ANDY BRONSON — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

TACOMA - Before Alex Tyska's game-winning 28-yard field goal in overtime lifted the Mount Baker to a 31-28 victory over Cascade Christian in the Class 1A state semifinals Saturday, Nov. 30, at the Tacoma Dome, no Mountaineer football team had ever qualified for a state championship game.

"I think my great grandpa played (at Mount Baker) and my grandpa and my dad," quarterback Andrew Zender said. "It's nice to be the first one in four generations to do it."

The football team became the first team sport for Mount Baker to qualify for a state championship game since the volleyball squad made it to the 2005 2A state title match.

In boys' team sports, the Mountaineers haven't played for a state title since the 1973-74 boys' basketball team.

If Mount Baker ends up beating Freeman on Saturday, Dec. 7, at the Tacoma Dome, it will claim the school's first team-sports championship since the boys' basketball team beat Okanogan 57-46 in the 1958 1A championship game.

Absolutely, the Mountaineers have had quite a bit of success in individual sports, competing for and winning a number of team titles in cross country, wrestling, golf and track and field. But what makes this year's football team so special?

"I think the biggest thing is nobody expected it out of this group," coach Ron Lepper said. "We lost so many good seniors from last year. We lost three guys that were all-state type of guys. We had some serious question marks."

Those question marks stemmed from the fact that the Mountaineers returned only three starters on each side of the ball from a team that made it to the state semifinals for the first time in program history last fall.

But that experience last year during a 28-6 loss to eventual state champion Montesano in the semifinals, may have served as a spring board for Saturday's win.

"I think it helped a lot," lineman Cody Larson said. "Especially for the guys that played a lot, like Izaiha (Schwinden), Andrew and Joey (Walton). Guys knew that it was going to be hot, so we were telling the younger guys to hydrate and be ready. It helps, but it's still hard to prepare."

Playing in the Tacoma Dome a year earlier also helped the Mountaineers prepare mentally for playing indoors.

"We weren't in so much awe of the dome," Schwinden said. "We knew what it was going to be like."

But how did a team that lost so much find its way back to the dome?

During summer practices, the Mountaineers had little doubt that they had plenty of talented skill position players, but graduating five of six offensive linemen - Lepper considers the tight end in the Mountaineers' wing-T system a sixth linemen - is hard to replace.

And how all those new pieces were going to fit together was an entirely different question.

"These guys kept battling," Lepper said. "You look at our offensive line, we're not going to scare anybody when we get off the bus. But Alex Ray was out there working as hard as he can. All those guys were. Those kids don't quit. They've come together. They have a lot of fun with each other. They're genuinely unselfish - they don't care who gets what."

And it's that attitude, more than anything, that has made the difference for Mount Baker.

It's an attitude that has been forged through hours of hard work over a number of years.

"I think it's how close we are," Schwinden said. "This group of guys has known each other since seventh grade. We've been together in the weight room all summer. Now we can all rely on each other. We can rely on the line to get the job done and the defense to get the stop at the end."

And because they relied on each other, the Mountaineers now find themselves someplace they've never been before.

"I wouldn't ask for a better group of guys," Schwinden said. "These guys all put in the work this summer and worked really hard in practice to get to the next game and this moment."

Reach David Rasbach at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2286.

Reach DAVID RASBACH at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2271.

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