While Mount Baker each of last two seasons has made deep runs in the Class 1A state playoffs, many of this year’s starters were on the sidelines watching the action.
But what some may perceive as a largely inexperienced 2014 group, coach Ron Lepper envisions something else. He sees a faction of players hungry for their chance to prove themselves after years of waiting their turn.
“Right now they are pretty eager about wanting to be successful,” Lepper said. “A lot of them are embracing their opportunity to be in the spotlight, you might say, a chance to be a starter. We lost a lot from last year, so we are just trying to find the right guys to get in the right spots, so we can be competitive again this year.”
It’s a narrative similar to last season, when Lepper had a decent sized, yet unproven senior class, and that didn’t work out too bad. Still, Baker returns only three starters in four positions. Juniors Chad Cohn and Paul Lebedev are back as is senior Liam Short, who started both at running back and linebacker.
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In spite of the personnel losses Mount Baker, which has aspirations of establishing itself as a perennial power, is ranked No. 7 in the 1A Associated Press Washington State Preseason Football Poll.
Lepper said his players getting acclimated quickly to the varsity-level speed and just the overall Friday night atmosphere will be key to how fast the team can jell together.
“To be honest with you, this group hasn’t done anything yet,” Lepper said. “There is going to be a lot of first-time guys under the Friday night lights with them being the man, so we got to get ourselves prepared for that opportunity.”
Mount Baker’s wing-T rushing attack was better than ever last year, as the Mountaineers amassed 303.8 yards per game on the ground. Izaiha Schwinden, who accounted for many of those, has graduated, but Short flashed the potential last year to have a special 2014 season, although the big back will miss the first two weeks due to offseason surgery.
Seniors Zach Yurchuk and Johnny Mata and sophomore Jed Schleimer are expected to compliment Short in the backfield, and the group will be running behind an almost completely rebuilt offensive line.
Cohn and Lebedev should anchor the front five, with Kolton Zender, T.J. Bass, Jax Toctocan and Cory Bergh. Former running back J.T. Keeney also has moved to the line, Lepper said.
“I think offensively we want to try to run the ball, and we are still going to hold that philosophy,” Lepper said. “I think our strength is there a little bit between running back and lineman-wise.”
Baker also moves to life after Andrew Zender and is expected to start junior Balyn Jacoby, who has athletic ability but is unproven at the spot. Jacoby played some varsity linebacker a year ago, which in turn stole time away he could of used playing quarterback at the junior varsity level.
Catching Jacoby’s passes will be senior Ruvim Tikhonov, Mason Bass and big-bodied tight end Carson Schmidt.
Defensively, Mount Baker will look to use both a stout front and its team speed to neutralize offenses.
“I think a strength is going to be up front and flying to the ball,” Lepper said. “That’s something we are really stressing, and that’s little bit more where our talent lies at this point.”
Lebedev, Cohn, Toctocan and Schmidt should see plenty of time in the trenches. Behind them will be Short, Zender, Jacoby, Schleimer or Keeney, and Yurchuk, Mata, Tikhonov and Vadim Kotsyuba should start in the secondary.