Twenty-six 2-, 3- or 4-yard runs, dink and dunk passes or incompletions.
Twenty-six times the Spokane West Valley football team’s offense poked and prodded the Lynden defense Saturday during the Class 2A state quarterfinals at Gonzaga Prep, searching for a weakness – a crack that would reveal a road map to the end zone. Twenty-six times the Lions responded, “Not this time – not against us.”
Glass-half-empty types might say the Lynden defense couldn’t find a way to get off the field – couldn’t force a turnover or make a key stop. But Lions coach Curt Kramme saw that 26-play drive and another 17-play possession – each of which came up empty, producing not even a successful field goal – as the epitome of his team’s bend-but-don’t-break philosophy.
“It’s a big part of our defense,” Lynden senior offensive/defensive lineman Tanner Steele said. “Bend don’t break, setback comeback – it all goes hand in hand. We just focus on the next thing. As long as they don’t put points on the board, we’re doing our job.”
The next area of focus for Lynden will be on its biggest challenge yet – the unbeaten and top-ranked Archbishop Murphy Wildcats in a 1 p.m. 2A state semifinal Saturday at Everett Memorial Stadium.
Lynden’s opponent is about as big and intimidating as they come – so imposing that five Cascade Conference foes decided it was better to forfeit rather than risk injury and/or humiliation against a team that has averaged outscoring the seven opponents it actually has played by nearly seven touchdowns per game – 50.7 to 2.3.
Last week, the Wildcats ended the career of legendary coach Sid Otton at Tumwater with a 48-10 trouncing. But you won’t see this group of Lions backing down.
“The biggest thing for us is not to be afraid,” Kramme said. “Obviously, this is a good high school team. I’d like to think so are we. They have a lot of talented kids, but they are just high school kids. They put their pants on one leg at a time, same as we do.”
Our focus is on not giving up, no matter how good they do. Until they cross the goal line, there’s always a chance they won’t.
Lynden senior safety Connor Shine
But the pants they put on are a quite a bit larger. The Wildcats will line up three 300-pounders on their offensive line, and that’s not counting 6-foot-8, 260-pound Washington State commit Abraham Lucas.
And the guys wearing the smaller pants? They’re extremely talented, as well – ludicrous-speed fast and talented. They’re also well coached, running a variety of schemes – everything from the wing-T to the spread and everything in between.
But if there is a Class 2A defense capable of slowing up Archbishop Murphy, the Lions believe it is them.
“I have a strong belief that our defense is good enough,” Lynden junior linebacker Gage Bates said. “We feel if we play to our full potential, we can beat any 2A team in the state.”
Built for success
Though expectations from outside the program might have been a little lower for Lynden in 2016, Kramme prognosticated his defense had a chance to be something special during summer camp.
“I liked their approach during the offseason,” Kramme said. “We have a number of guys that are ready to go to work and not just rest on their God-given talent. It led me to believe they could be a successful team. Football is a sport where everything is earned, and these kids have put the sweat in the bucket.”
But the Lynden defense had more than just gumption, they had some talent, too.
A longtime proponent of small, quick defensive linemen that could create problems with their ability to slant, Kramme was excited about the prospects of having a little bit bigger line with players such as the 6-3, 250-pound Steele, 6-5, 225-pound Davis Bode and 5-11, 235-pound Edward Andrews playing alongside 5-7, 145-pound Jordan Brockmeyer.
“We can still make all the slants and fly around and make the plays,” Steele said. “We just focus on doing our job and making our plays so the linebackers can make the tackles.”
As long as they don’t put points on the board, we’re doing our job.
Lynden senior defensive lineman Tanner Steele
Jake Kettles and Trey Labounty were expected to wreck havoc from defensive end, while physical Cody Weinheimer and Bates were counted on to pile up tackles in the middle at linebacker.
“Communication is a big part of it for us,” said Bates, who leads the team with 107 tackles this year. “Cody and I have been playing together for a long time. We’ve known each other since we came up playing LYS (Lynden Youth Sports).”
The Lynden secondary also has developed throughout the year with safeties such as Connor Shine and Aaron Weidenaar and corners Landon DeBruin and Cory Warner among others.
“We all put a lot of time in during the offseason,” Shine said. “We’ve all been working really hard. We get along well and communicate and play together really well.”
Bending it like Seattle
Together they’ve proven be the perfect fit for the bend-but-don’t-break scheme Kramme, defensive coordinator Blake VanDalen and Lynden coaching staff constructed.
“A great example of what we’re trying to do was Seattle’s game against the Patriots (Sept. 13),” Bates said. “New England got to the 3 yard line, but they didn’t score. It’s what our defense is built around. We put our goal-line D in around the 5 and do everything we can to keep them out. Bend but don’t break – that’s one of our key phrases.”
But what about those long drives, like West Valley ran against the Lions last week?
“Our focus is on not allowing any big plays,” Shine said. “We don’t want to let anyone get behind us and score. Don’t let anyone have that big play. We plan on them eventually making a mistake, and then we need to capitalize. ... Our goal is to get three turnovers a game.”
While they haven’t quite reached that level, the Lions have forced 27 turnovers this season and enter Saturday with a plus-12 turnover ratio.
“Every day, the defense just talks about doing our job and making plays,” Steele said. “If individuals do their job and do it well, then we can all rally together and make the play.”
We feel we’re one tough defense to score on. We’re excited for this game. We know we’re obviously the underdog.
Lynden junior linebacker Gage Bates
Lynden’s defense has shown good ability to do that against both the run and the pass.
It will enter Saturday having allowed 1,453 yards on the ground and 1,453 yards through the air, or 242.1 yards per game. Of the 25 offensive touchdowns they’ve surrendered this year, 12 have come via the run and 13 on passing plays.
But now is the time to see exactly how good that Lynden defense is.
Is it capable of stopping an offense that has put more than 50 points per game on the board this year? Can it hold up against one of the biggest offensive lines in the state? Can it contain all the big-play threats the Wildcats can roll out?
One thing’s for certain, the Lions don’t seem to be entering the game afraid.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Steele said. “I’m excited to play against some of those big boys. You don’t get to go against guys that big all that often. It’s going to be a battle in there, and it’s going to be a proving ground.”