Seven Friday’s ago during Mount Baker’s season-opener, a one-sided 35-7 home loss to Sedro-Woolley, senior defensive back Ruvim Tikhonov found himself a wide-open lane on a kickoff return that would have been a sure-fire touchdown.
The only problem was Tikhonov, who, like many of this year’s Mountaineers, was getting his first varsity start, fumbled the ball.
“We make silly mistakes, but this team really doesn’t get down,” Mount Baker assistant coach Tom Horsman said. “Instead of coming off mad, he’s coming off clapping his hands, and he’s like, ‘Hey, great job guys. That was great blocking. Sorry I fumbled the ball.’ How can you get mad at a kid like that?”
Miscues are far less common these days for the Class 1A No. 6-ranked Mountaineers (6-1, 4-0 NWC 1A), who are riding a six-game win streak. Mount Baker brought back only three returning starters this fall from a team last year that played for a state title.
And while Tikhonov’s blunder wasn’t lauded, Baker’s resiliency, positive attitude, ability to play loose and quickly flush errors, has coach Ron Lepper’s team in prime position with two weeks left in the regular season to win a NWC 1A title and claim a postseason berth.
Standout senior running back and linebacker Liam Short and junior linemen Chad Cohn and Paul Lebedev were the only ones to start last season, but from day one, Lepper has been impressed with this group’s desire to be successful.
So how has Baker done it? They’ve learned quick, and playing tight has never been an issue, despite the inexperience.
“Sometimes we are a little too loose,” Short said. “Especially for me as a captain, I feel like we need to bring it back together a little more, but it keeps our energy level up.”
The Mountaineers are preparing to face 1A rival Meridian on Friday, Oct. 24, for the second time this season. Mount Baker took Act 1 33-25, but was trailing 19-7 at halftime thanks to a Meridian touchdown off a trick play right before the second quarter closed.
The Mountaineers didn’t let the crushing blow before half affect them. The team instead engineered a fourth-quarter rally, finishing a late drive with a go-ahead score before a Tikhonov pick-six sealed Meridian’s fate.
The win was a coming-of-age moment of sorts. Lepper said the win was identity-shaping.
“When we rallied back, I thought if we can get everything together, we can easily beat all these teams,” senior lineman Jax Toctocan said. “That was huge for us. Once we learned from our mistakes, we picked it right back up.”
Baker’s wins, though, have come anything but easy.
The Mountaineers in fact have become accustom to keeping their fans on the edge of their seats. Mount Baker’s four league wins have been by an average of 9.8 points, and the team’s largest conference margin of victory was a 31-20 win Week 6 over Lynden Christian.
The myriad close victories are a testament to Baker’s ability to play clutch in tense moments.
“I think that’s the positive mentality they have,” Horsman said.
Character aside, Baker has been beating teams up using a potent run game plenty reminiscent of Lepper’s successful past teams.
The Mountaineers, led by Short’s bruising running style, are averaging 274.4 yards per game and have scored 23 rushing touchdowns compared to just four passing scores. Short has amassed 783 rush yards and 11 TDs in five starts, and senior Zach Yurchuk and sophomore Jed Schleimer have been strong compliment backs.
While both Lepper and Horsman admitted Short gives the Mountaineers their offensive pulse, Short piled praise onto an offensive line unit that’s nearly completely remade.
“The biggest part is our line,” said Short, when asked what’s been at the heart of Baker’s six-game win streak. “Chad has been the only starter from last year, so there is a lot of inexperienced guys out there that have stepped up and proved what we’ve been able to do.”
That line includes tight end Carson Schmidt, Cohn, Toctocan, Kolten Zender, J.T. Keeney and Lebedev.
Another bright spot and arguably Baker’s largest question mark coming into the year has been its secondary, which is composed of Yurchuk, Tikhonov, Johnny Mata and Vadim Kotsyuba.
The group intercepted Meridian four times during the Week 5 win, and followed with a three-pick performance against Lynden Christian. The four secondary players exemplify Baker’s ability to play beyond what Lepper considers a smaller group stature-wise.
“We come out smaller, but we are still pretty mean,” Toctocan said. “We pretend they are smaller. We want to be bigger than them, so we push them. We don’t get kicked around. If we get pushed down, we get right back up and get in their face.”
Baker’s tough-minded defense ranks third in all of the NWC with 16.7 points allowed per game.
“I wouldn’t lie to you. I’ve been surprised,” said Lepper, when asked if he saw this good of a start coming in preseason. “I have all the confidence our kids will play hard. We always teach that, but you don’t know where they are until you get on the field. You get punched in the nose. How are you going to respond? And it’s been a great surprise, and it comes down to the kids and getting those guys to believe in themselves.”