High School Football

Baker’s secondary relishing its opportunity to shine

One of Mount Baker’s largest question marks entering the year was how it would fill every vacant spot left in the Mountaineers’ defensive backfield.

Senior cornerbacks Zach Yurchuk, Johnny Mata and safety Ruvim Tikhonov were relative unknowns before the season. Combined, they’d seen limited varsity action at best.

But while most didn’t know what to expect, behind the scenes the trio had been preparing for their senior years since they were freshmen.

“Me and Ruvim, since we were freshmen, he lives right next to me and we’ve been throwing routes in the yard all the time,” Yurchuk explained. “We’d come together before the season even started and talked about what we want, ‘We want to be the best defensive backs that Baker has ever had.’ We just want to make plays left and right.”

Mata, Tikhonov and Yurchuk started together as freshmen, played JV at the same time and now are making the most of their featured varsity roles, solidifying themselves as one of this year’s most pleasant surprises.

The group, which also contributes on offense, will lead Baker (8-2) into its Class 1A State Playoff opening-round matchup with Montesano (6-3) at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 14, at Civic Stadium.

“It was a big concern,” said Mount Baker coach Ron Lepper of completely remaking the Mountaineers’ secondary, “but we kind of liked the guys we saw. They did a nice job last year on the scout team and stuff, but at the same time you never know until you get under the lights. They have a great attitude. They have really done everything that we have asked of them, been very coachable.”

Mount Baker is giving up an average of 171.2 passing yards per game, playing six games against predominate passing teams (Lynden Christian, Meridian, Nooksack Valley twice), has yielded 12 touchdowns and has 10 interceptions.

Some of those INTs came in key spots, including Tikhonov’s pick-six Week 5 that sewed up a come-from-behind win against Meridian.

While the three’s varsity time was limited before this fall, they were able to learn from each of the past two Mount Baker teams that played in the Tacoma Dome. Combine that with their coachabilty and the trio has thrived.

“They are willing to focus on technique,” Lepper said. “I think those guys’ willingness to really take that on and learn has been huge for us. It’s been really huge. Knowing you have a back end to your defense, you can maybe be a little more aggressive with some blitzes and you can go one-on-one.”

And the group’s value hasn’t been restricted to the defensive side of the ball, either.

Yurchuk, a smaller, shiftier back, has complemented Baker’s power run game. Yurchuk has logged 493 rushing yards and five TDs. Mata has contributed in the run and pass game, compiling 219 yards and three scores, and Tikhonov has been Baker’s main pass-catching threat, recording a team-high four touchdown receptions and 211 receiving yards.

“They help on both sides of the ball, and it’s been fun, a lot of enjoyment as a coach to see these guys come up through the ranks,” Lepper said. “And when they’ve gotten their chance, they’ve grabbed onto it.”

Now time’s come for Mata, Tikhonov and Yurchuk to try and lead their team to the Tacoma Dome.

“We’ve been talking about this moment since freshman year,” Yurchuk said. “Since we were freshmen we’d be watching the varsity guys, and sophomore year when they went to the dome, we were like, ‘When we become seniors, this is what we want.’ This is what we have worked for.”