Montesano’s has followed an unorthodox route to a familiar destination in the state semifinals.
Mount Baker is taking that road for the first time.
The Bulldogs (10-2) and Mountaineers (10-1) will square off in a state Class 1A football semi scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Tacoma Dome.
This will be Monte’s fifth state semifinal appearance in the past seven years — although not all of those games were played in the Tacoma Dome. With a win Saturday, the Bulldogs will advance to the state title contest for the first time since their 1994 championship season.
Royal and River View are facing off in the other semifinal Saturday in Kennewick. The state 1A championship game is scheduled for 10 a.m. Dec. 1 at the Tacoma Dome.
This year’s semifinal trip for the Bulldogs will come during a season in which they did not win at least a share of their league title for the first time since 2004, entered the playoffs unranked and played only once on their home field since a fire destroyed the Rottle Field grandstand in mid-September.
Mount Baker, conversely, advanced to the semis for the first time in school history.
Traditionally overshadowed in the Whatcom County League by perennial state power Meridian, the Mountaineers from Deming (located east of Bellingham) captured the league title this season, with victories over Meridian (30-8) and Lynden Christian (43-26) on their resume.
Their lone loss was to state 2A semifinalist Lynden, 55-14, in mid-September.
This will be Mount Baker’s third straight playoff contest against a Southwest Washington opponent. The Mounties beat a pair of Trico League schools to reach the semis.
After opening the playoffs with a 21-14 win over Woodland, they reeled off 24 unanswered points to upend previously unbeaten La Center, 24-9, in last week’s quarterfinals at Battle Ground.
Plagued by early turnovers, Mount Baker trailed 9-0 early in the second quarter and 9-3 at the half. The Mountaineers turned it around behind a grinding ground game that netted 233 yards rushing.
Stylistically, the Mounties are poles apart from pass-oriented King’s, the top-ranked team that Montesano upset, 17-7, in the other Western Washington quarterfinal last Saturday.
“The first thing that stands out about Mount Baker is their physicality on both sides of the ball,” Monte coach Terry Jensen noted. “Very physical football team.”
Operating from a wing-T, the Mountaineers tend to rely on their power running. Jake Schleimer, a tackle-breaking fullback, has amassed more than 1,000 yards rushing. He picked up 151 yards on 22 carries against La Center, while halfback Izaiha Schwinden added 70 yards on 10 carries.
Mount Baker has also thrown effectively when necessary. Quarterback Andrew Zender was 6 of 10, for 77 yards, against La Center. His 28-yard touchdown pass to Dylan Howard in the third quarter gave the Whatcom County club a permanent lead.
“We need to play physical and be able to tackle,” Jensen said. “The team that can control the line of scrimmage will have a huge advantage.”
Woodland, incidentally, is the lone common opponent of Saturday’s combatants. The Bulldogs crushed the Beavers, 49-7, in a September game that launched their nine-game winning streak and turned around their season.
One key to Monte’s recent success has been a vastly improved defensive performance. Since their 41-14 loss to Hoquiam in September, the Bulldogs have surrendered more than one touchdown only once (that against Charles Wright in their state opener). They shockingly shut down King’s and its high-flying offense last week. That was Jensen’s 100th victory as Montesano’s coach.
“We are just not a very big team physically, add in the lack of experience and teams were able to move the ball on us (early in the season),” Jensen said. “After the Hoquiam game, we simplified a few things, but maybe the biggest thing was we started playing with a lot more emotion. The players have worked hard to focus on getting better every day and there is a certain synergy to this group that has allowed us to play bigger than we are.”
Linebacker Matthew Jensen leads Montesano in tackles (with 85) and sacks (four). Elliot Mendenhall has made 81 tackles, Zack Nelson 59 and Jake Massoth 55.
Ben Ohashi and Anthony Louthan top the Bulldogs in interceptions with five and four, respectively.
Ohashi sustained a head injury early in the fourth quarter against King’s. The senior defensive back-wide receiver is being held out of contact drills this week, but has been cleared to play Saturday provided he suffers no relapses or headaches.
Mendenhall, Tucker Ibabao and Matthew Jensen have each rushed for more than 500 yards this season, with Ibabao amassing a team-high 958 yards on 128 carries and has scored 17 touchdowns. Mendenhall has logged 951 yards on 135 carries and quarterback Jensen 560 yards on 92 carries.
Jensen has completed 110 of 182 passes for 1,794 yards on 18 touchdowns.
Ohashi has caught 38 passes for 573 yards, while Shad Rogers has hauled in 32 passes for 463 yards.