Mount Baker overcomes undersized line with oversized effort

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 5, 2013 

The Mount Baker offensive line makes a hole for Izaiha Schwinden (44) against Blaine 52-19 on Friday. Oct. 25, at Mount Baker High School.

ALEX ROBERTS — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Mount Baker 191-pound senior offensive lineman Cody Larson compared his undersized line to a boxing bag or a body shield: A group doing whatever it takes to absorb blows more intended for the Mountaineers' skill players.

"As long as we get hit first, it's better than letting Izaiha (Schwinden), Liam (Short) and them get hurt," Larson said.

Coach Ron Lepper has reiterated again and again that Mount Baker doesn't scare teams with its size, but the Mountaineers' toughness and physicality makes up for their slighter stature. And Lepper's offensive front six are a textbook example.

The six starters along Mount Baker's line, including tight end Hunter Gates, average 207.7 pounds. Starting senior center Alex Ray stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 176 pounds. Larson and starting running back Short weigh the exact same.

Still, Mount Baker's line has been extremely effective and has helped pave the way for Short, Schwinden, Joey Walton and Andrew Zender all year.

The group will look to create more running lanes against a big Freeman defensive front when No. 4-ranked Mount Baker faces No. 3 Freeman for the Class 1A state title at 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, at the Tacoma Dome.

The line's productivity is even more impressive given left tackle Jake Oiness is the only returning starter.

"I mean, to be honest, that was our biggest concern coming into the season," Lepper said in a phone interview.

But Lepper's skepticism was eliminated once he began seeing the amount of work his line was putting in with position coach Rob Brandland.

Left tackle Oiness, left guard Larson, center Ray, right guard Danny Kirkpatrick, right tackle Chad Kohn and tight end Gates have led Mount Baker's rushing attack to a 7.2 yard per carry average and have helped Short and Schwinden combine for more than 2,400 yards.

So how have the Mountaineers been able to move bigger defensive fronts enough to create a successful run game?

Larson said it boils down to sacrificing one's body and having trust in fellow linemen.

"If they knock you down, you pull them down with you," he said. "If they run over you, just make sure you trip them up or something. I don't know. Try to get in their way as much as possible. You're still expected to block them. It doesn't matter who it is. They expect you to block them no matter what, even though their smallest guy is my size."

Lepper also raved about his line's coachability.

He said while it's been a process, it's been truly impressive watching Mount Baker's line grow and improve as the season has went on.

"You have to have guys who are willing to do what you ask them to do, and it's not always the funnest thing in the world," said Lepper of being an offensive lineman. "We take pride in running the football, and you have to have an offensive line to do that."

Larson admitted Mount Baker doesn't have the vast amount of athletes larger schools do. To make up for it, he said Baker has to embrace a bruising brand of football. They have to hit and enjoy it.

Gates, Larson and Kirkpatrick are two-way starters. Besides the constant contact on the offensive side of the ball, they're bringing down ball carriers on defense. The blue-collar, hard-hitting style Mount Baker has developed aids the line in overcoming its lack of size.

"We got a physical team in general," Larson said. "As a whole group, we practice it. We hit the piss out of each other. It sucks, you get really tired. You get sore a lot, but it comes out in the game because you are just used to hitting and hitting and hitting, because it's something you just do."

Mount Baker's Wing-T offense is predicated on creating running lanes by blockers taking good angles, and the offensive scheme helps mask some of the problems that come with having an undersized line.

Besides the line's block-by-any-means-necessary attitude, the unit has become extremely fundamentally sound.

"We're not the biggest of all, but we practice on the fundamentals," Oiness said. "At the beginning of the year, we thought it was going to be difficult because we had to fill spots. We've had a lot of guys step up and do what they're supposed to do and get the job done."

The Mountaineers, Larson said, will have their toughest test yet against Freeman, which touts several big defensive lineman, including 6-foot-6, 314-pounder Jordan Rose and 6-foot, 245-pounder Teagan Glidewell.

"We have a hard time with bigger kids, usually," Larson admitted, "but as long as you get in the way... our running backs are good enough to get through the holes."

Reach Andrew Lang at andrew.lang@bellinghamherald.com or call 360-756-2862. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for Whatcom County sports updates.

CLASS 1A FOOTBALL STATE PLAYOFFS

STATE CHAMPIONSHIP

Freeman vs. Mount Baker

When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7

Where: Tacoma Dome

Reach ANDREW LANG at andrew.lang@bellinghamherald.com or call ext. 862.

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