Fresh off their best season in school history, the Mount Baker Mountaineers have been operating at a high clip during the first two weeks of practice. Following a trip to the 1A state semifinals in 2012 and an 11-2 record, the Mountaineers welcome back several key pieces of their offensive attack.
Senior Andrew Zender enters his third season as the starting quarterback for head coach Ron Lepper. As a junior last season, Zender threw for 735 yards and eight touchdowns and added 186 yards and two scores on the ground.
Zender did struggle at times trying to force the ball last season during Northwest Conference league play, throwing seven interceptions, but Lepper said his starting signal caller put in the work in the offseason working on his conditioning and studying the offense.
“The thing about Andrew is he’s got good leadership and great poise,” Lepper said. “He doesn’t really get rattled if he makes a mistake and he worked hard in the summer to be able to throw the ball around.”
Another skill player who put in countless hours readying for 2013 in the offseason is senior running back Izaiha Schwinden. The 5-9, 161-pounder is definitely a name Whatcom County football fans are going to want to keep an eye on.
Schwinden backed up running back Jake Schleimer last season, who had one of the most memorable senior campaigns in Mount Baker history. Schleimer rushed for 1,779 yards and 26 touchdowns and along with fellow senior Tyrel Cronk, was the heart and soul of the Mounties 2012 third-place state 1A team.
However, Schwinden got his fair share of carries and put up some beastly numbers himself. Schwinden finished his junior campaign with 875 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
“Izaiha is a guy we’re going to look to a lot this season,” Lepper said. “He’s a guy who probably would have been a little more recognized had he not been behind a guy like Jake Schleimer. We’re really going to rely on him to do some great things for us and I know he was working very hard this summer to get himself ready for this year.”
Schwinden may only way 161-pounds, but his running style resembles a power back. Last season, Schwinden didn’t hesitate in lowering his shoulder and searching for contact. He’s also got great speed and has some elusive footwork.
In order for Schwinden and the Mounties’ running game to have some success, the offensive line will need to be able to open up holes and win some battles in the trenches. The team graduated five of the six up front guys last season, with OL Jake Oiness being the only returning starter.
“We really need to find that group and have them gel,” Lepper said. “We like to run the ball and that’s not a secret. That all starts with the guys up front.”
Some of the players, Lepper said, that figure to step in and compete for some playing time on both sides of the line include Danny Kirkpatrick (5-9, 226), Alex Ray (5-8, 176), Cody Larson (5-11, 191), Paul Lebedev (5-11, 211), Chad Cohn (5-10, 236) and others.
Even with some personnel question marks, Lepper said he’s been happy with the fire he’s seen out of the guys battling for spots.
“I’ve seen some good effort and I think we’re getting better out here and those two things are very important,” Lepper said. “A couple younger guys have shined a little bit and will be pushing some older guys for some playing time. We still have a lot of work to do, but I like what we’ve done so far. The big thing is just to make sure we don’t take any steps backwards.”
Mount Baker opens the season against Bellingham at 7 p.m. on Saturday night under the Civic Stadium lights.
“We want to come out and just play our style of football,” Lepper said. “We want to play tough and compete every play. As far as last year, it was awesome and a great experience, but we know that’s in the past. We lost a lot of guys, so we’re trying to find players to step in.
“Obviously we’d like to get back to the playoffs and see what we’re capable of doing. We’re not focused on winning the league or going undefeated, though. Our main goal is to get to the playoffs and make sure we’re playing our best football at that time.”
Only time will tell if that goal becomes a reality for the boys from Deming.