Predicting Mount Baker’s starting offensive line heading into this fall could have been anyone’s guess.
Jax Toctocan and Kolten Zender predominately were JV players, JT Keeney was a running back, Paul Lebedev was a varsity standout defensive specialist, tight end Carson Schmidt was backing Hunter Gates and Chad Cohn represented the Mountaineers’ only returning starting lineman.
Still, even with a line coach Ron Lepper and his staff patched together, this year’s group has helped carry Baker deep into the postseason.
“That was a big concern, but we knew we had some dudes,” Lepper said of his line in a phone interview. “We knew if we had some patience and they came together, we had a chance to be pretty solid, and that is the way it has turned out.”
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Mount Baker’s offensive line has helped pave the way for the Mountaineers’ running backs to average 6.9 yards per carry, and Baker is coming off a season-best performance after running for 458 yards during a Class 1A State Playoff 41-28 opening-round win over Montesano last week.
Liam Short and Jed Schleimer, with the offensive line leading the way, combined for 404 yards. The Mountaineers will be looking for similar results this week when Baker (9-2) hosts Eatonville (11-0) in a state playoff quarterfinal game at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22, at Civic Stadium.
Lebedev first noticed his line’s potential during summer workouts, he said, but both he and Lepper heaped praise on O-line coach Rob Brandland for the job he’s done of bringing the group together this season.
“He is a great guy, great coach, and he makes a great group of lineman,” Lebedev said in a phone interview. “We had no one this year besides Chad, and I feel like he was a big part of (the development).”
The success of any wing-T offense is predicated off being able to run the football, but Lepper has had teams who pass more than others. This year’s version of Mountaineers, however, have thrown the football 58 times through 11 games, making for an average of 5.3 pass attempts per game.
Such a heavy reliance on the run game has pressured the offensive line even more to perform. It’s also helped with first-year starting quarterback Mason Bass’ maturation.
Schmidt (TE), Cohn (RT), Keeney (RG), Zender (C), Toctocan (LG) and Lebedev (LT) are powerful enough to move defenders and quick enough to be effective in Baker’s running schemes, reliant upon pulling guards and tackles.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without it,” said Lepper of Baker’s strong blocking. “(Running) has kind of been our MO all year. We are not secretive with what we are going to do, and when we are able to still get yardage, the kids take pride in that.”
Besides Cohn, each of Baker’s five other linemen took unique paths to their starting roles, but Lebedev’s transition from defense to a becoming a two-way player may be the most interesting.
Lepper admitted, and Lebedev agreed, at first the unanimous All-Northwest Conference first-team defensive lineman wasn’t thrilled about chipping in on offense. He loved making tackles and never displayed an interest on the offensive side.
“Before the season I didn’t like it much,” Lebedev said. “I was mostly a defensive guy who liked to hit guys on offense, and coach was like, ‘We need the best guys out there,’ and I stepped up, and it turned out great for me.”
In fact, Lebedev said he now prefers blocking over playing his trademark defensive role.
Lepper first saw flashes of Lebedev’s potential last year when he filled in against Meridian. He went against a dominant Trojans defensive line and more than held his own. That momentum has carried over to this season, as the Baker junior has established himself as one of the Mountaineers’ top lineman.
“This group is a special group,” Lepper said, “just the way they have come together, and they have all had good years for us. In year’s past there’s been one guy we have to make up for, but this group is good.”