Curt Kramme, before Lynden’s season even began, had already deciphered what the Lions’ biggest obstacle would be this season.
He stated it before Week 1 and again reiterated his point before Lynden’s quarterfinal win over Hockinson last week.
“For us, our whole season has been about effort,” Kramme said. “When we play hard, we are pretty doggone good. When we just think we can be out there, we aren’t that good. That’s the challenge to our kids.”
The Lions graduated only a few pieces from last year’s 14-0 state title team, again making Lynden a favorite to vie for a state championship this fall. But the second half of the regular season was anything but easy, as the decisive blowout wins Lynden fans had grown accustom to turned into white-knuckle fourth-quarter hold-our-breath-type contests.
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The Lions needed a field goal in the closing seconds to avoid a Week 6 loss to Burlington-Edison, Lynden’s win streak was snapped Week 7 at home against Ferndale, the Lions bounced back Week 8 for a strong road win over Sedro-Woolley before earning a narrow 28-21 home win against Blaine to end the regular-season slate.
But these current Lions look more familiar.
The big-play offense is back, Lynden’s trademark hard-hitting defense has been revived and it’s that effort thing most responsible for the Lions’ return.
“We had a slump in effort for those four weeks,” senior captain defense end and offensive lineman Bryce Sterk said, “and when it came to the playoffs it was like, ‘This is it. We lose we’re out. We win, we move on,’ At one practice everything just snapped, and we started going 110.”
Sterk and senior two-way standout Caden Lair said the days of taking opponents for granted are over, and Lynden will test that statement when the Lions (11-1) travel four-plus hours east across the Cascades to play Ellensburg (12-0) in the Class 2A State Playoff semifinals at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 29, at Lions Field in Moses Lake. Lynden beat Ellensburg 21-7 last year in the semis at Lions Field before advancing to the state title game.
Lynden’s postseason began with a 42-7 thumping of Shorecrest in the district playoffs, and the Lions followed with a more impressive 41-21 rout over River Ridge in the state round of 16. Lynden advanced to the semis after easily handling Hockinson 52-28 in the quarters last week.
After the win, star receiver Jordan Wittenberg alluded to how noticeable Lynden’s increased effort has been.
“We’ve come out with a new fire and a new intensity,” he said. “At practices, the past couple weeks, lots of hard hitting and a lot of fire. If you were to come out to one of our practices, you would see a whole new level of hard hitting and intensity. Everyone wants to be out there.”
Without question, Lynden’s new-found energy has exposed itself most on defense. Even with the absence of a prominent run game at times with senior back Trent Postma in and out of the lineup, quarterback Sterling Somers has concocted a lethal passing attack with the help of his line and a deep, athletic group of wideouts.
Lynden’s defense is giving up an average of 155 rushing yards per game. Against Ferndale the Lions yielded 292. Sedro-Woolley racked up 373 the following week, but Lynden’s defense has proved rock-solid during the postseason.
Shorecrest averaged 2.8 yards per carry, River Ridge amassed 97 rush yards and Hockinson’s power run game was held to 86 yards.
Sterk and Lair credited Lynden’s defensive turnaround with a small meeting the starters had after the Blaine game.
“Us captains talked about it for a bit,” Sterk said, “and we thought we my as well talk to the starting defense and figure things out, so we talked to them and it went into their heads, and they took it to heart. We started seeing some improvements after that.”
Everyone on defense has stepped up collectively, but Lair gave considerable praise to new safety Noah King, who has stepped in at safety since senior standout Lucas Petersen’s season ended with an injury against Sedro-Woolley.
“I got to give a shout out to Noah King,” Lair said. “I can’t speak for everyone else, but he’s been coming down hill and helping out on the outside runs, and he’s just annihilating kids.”
Shutting down the run will be paramount this weekend against Ellensburg. Senior running back Gabe Caskey already has claimed the school’s single-season rushing record, carrying for 2,125 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Last season the Lions had no problem slowing Caskey. He ran for only 35 yards on 12 carries but did catch a 64-yard touchdown pass.
“Counters are their No. 1 play by far,” Lair said, “so for me and Bryce, in particular, and other guys on other plays, we need to close down the kick-out guard. That is huge. It’s going to be a big challenge for us, especially.”