This program nearly upset Lynden in 2018 and for seven years has made state playoffs
DEMING — A lot of new faces are taking over starting roles this season for a Mount Baker football team that’s looking to extend its run of seven straight berths into the state playoffs.
The Mountaineers’ 2018 season came to an end in the state quarterfinals with a 55-6 defeat to Royal, a team in the midst of a 52-game win streak, sealing the Mounties’ record at 8-5.
Now they’ll try to climb back into state contention with just five returning starters — made up of three players.
Gone is three-year starting quarterback Kaleb Bass, who threw for over 1,300 yards and 15 touchdowns, according to whatcompreps.com. Bass also was a first-team all-state defensive back, winning that acclaim along with now-graduated Jay Allen, who piled up 156 tackles at linebacker.
“Now we have a lot of inexperienced guys who have not played a lot of time on Friday nights,” coach Ron Lepper said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The players who are returning will prove crucial to the Mounties’ fortunes.
Senior Waylon Kentner (6-foot-2, 170) was the top pass-catching tight end in the Northwest Conference 1A ranks last year, earning first-team all-state with 315 yards gained and five touchdowns on 12 receptions. He’d like to improve the other aspect of his position this year: run and pass blocking.
“I’d like to be able to block better,” Kentner said. “Last year I couldn’t block as well as I should be able to. That’s one of the things
I’ve been working on. And reading at linebacker. I want to be able to read the ball better.”
A key returner is senior running back Jason Lee (5-foot-11, 170), who was Whatcom County’s second-leading rusher in 2018. Lee racked up 1,121 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 164 carries and will be the workhorse for the Mounties’ offense this year.
“He’s kind of the guy that’s going to be the focal point of what we want to accomplish,” Lepper said. “He’s a really great kid: ASB president, honor-roll guy. He’s good with the young guys.”
Lee has been building his fast-twitch muscles this offseason by running agility cone drills, timed 40-yard dashes and with sprinting workouts.
“I got caught a couple of times from behind last season,” Lee said. “Made it a priority to condition myself this summer. I used to have a lot of nerves built up before games, but I’m starting to see the bigger picture and understand plays more in-depth. The game is definitely starting to slow down for me.”
The Mounties are going with their trustworthy and perennially-effective Wing-T offense, with Lee spearheading the attack from the backfield.
“Every year it’s a little bit different,” Lepper said. “Some years, some plays work better than others, but that’ll be our base formation.”
Junior Mason Jacoby (6-foot, 150 pounds) is taking over at quarterback. He was 8-of-21 passing with 149 yards, one touchdown and three picks in a backup role last season. Most of those snaps came during the last three or four series against Royal when Bass was injured.
“We’re trying to get him to just be himself and not try to be like Kaleb,” Lepper said. “We’re not going to ask him to go win the game for us. We’re not ready for that kind of stuff yet.”
The biggest revamping project is along the offensive and defensive lines, where every single starter is now graduated. Lepper is still piecing together the lines and figuring out who the new starters will be. Both lines will likely be led by senior Cody Saulsbury (5-foot-11, 220 pounds), who placed seventh at state wrestling in the 220-pound division.
“We have to rebuild our whole offensive line,” Lepper said. “That’s been our biggest focus, trying to get that somewhat solidified. (There are) multiple parts in there and we’re trying to find the best combination.”
The strengths of the defense will be in the second and third levels, at linebacker and safety. Lee returns at his safety position, along with Kenter and senior Mark Tikhanov at linebacker. Tikhanov snatched three interceptions last year. Joining Tikhanov and Kentner at linebacker are sophomore Davin Beason and junior Toby Jefferson.
“Hopefully we can be aggressive on defense and give ourselves a chance to stay in ballgames,” Lepper said.
Last year Mount Baker got handled by Lynden in the preseason jamboree, then nearly upset the Lions in a 35-34 loss in the season opener a week later. Lepper is hoping they can have similar success when the two teams meet again in game one on Sept. 6.
“We had a little adjustment and the kids really responded well,” Lepper said. “It’s a different group of kids and we’re not sure how they’re going to do that. Obviously, Lynden is a model program.”
From there, the rest of the schedule doesn’t get much easier. In week two the Mounties take on Class 2A Sehome, a team that won seven of nine to close out last year, advancing to the state playoffs for the first time in 17 years. Then Mount Baker takes on Cascade of Leavenworth, a team returning most of its starters from a year ago, before getting into the brutal run of 1A Northwest Conference play.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Lepper said. “There’s not really a bye week in there. One thing is, we’re going to compete and give a great effort. If we don’t do that, then we’ll find guys on our team who will.”
Mount Baker travels to Lynden Christian Sept. 27.