"If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best," said Lake Stevens head coach Tom Tri, echoing football coaches across the country.
Tonight Tri's Vikings might be playing the best, when they travel to Sammamish to take on the Skyline Spartans, the No. 1-ranked 4A team in Washington, in their first-round game of the state tournament.
To listen to Herald staffers and friends pick this week's games in the State Playoff Podcast, click here.
Tri said his team isn't going to be scared of facing the defending state champ. The Vikings just see Skyline as another opponent standing in the way of their ultimate goal: a state championship.
"We know it's a big challenge ahead of us, but Skyline's just a high school football team and that's the approach we're taking this week," Tri said. "Once you're in the playoffs you have to play good football teams every week."
But you might not be playing athletes like Skyline's Max Browne every week. Browne, who ESPN ranks as the 18th best prospect in the nation and second-best quarterback in the Class of 2013, has thrown for 33 touchdowns and more than 2,700 yards this season.
The pocket passer has committed to the University of Southern California. In last week's 59-17 win over Puyallup, Browne became the Washington state record holder for career completions with 805, eclipsing the mark previously held by former Prosser and Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore (787).
And there's even more that concerns Tri.
"His feet are better than advertised," he said. "We're going to try to get after him, but we're also going to have to be disciplined in our pass rush. Keep track of our lanes. He's not afraid to tuck it and go."
In order to be successful, Tri wants his defense to limit the big plays by the Skyline offense. The Spartans routinely have two- and three-play scoring drives. Tri wants the Vikings to slow the offense down, and force drives that are 12-15 plays.
He also wants to dial up the pressure on Browne. Even if that means risking some coverage in order to blitz the quarterback.
"Our front four does a pretty good job of being physical and putting pretty good pressure on the quarterback," Tri said. "We want him to know that we're not afraid to bring pressure and try to get after him. Let him know that if he's going to sit back in the pocket, he's not going to have a lot of time. We're going to bring it.
"We're going to have to gamble a little bit."
On offense, the Vikings hope to execute. They want to mix up their runs, going to the inside and the outside, with some screens thrown in there to keep the Skyline defense off balance.
It helps, Tri says, to return several players from last year's team that got to the state semifinals. He believes having that experience helps his team remain calm during the biggest games of the season.
"We've at least experienced this type of playoff atmosphere," Tri said. "We're not going to be star struck because we're there. We're battle tested now. We've got experience. It's going to be more of a normal Friday night for them, instead of, 'Oh my gosh! We're in the state playoffs and we're playing Skyline!'"
Senior captain Brandon Johnson agrees.
"It just makes you want to go back again," the offensive and defensive lineman said. "We want to get back and try and see if we can go farther."
Last year's Vikings were a passing-first team centered around quarterback Jake Nelson. This season, the Vikings have gone with a strong rushing attack, led by the 954 yards of junior Austin Otis. And, despite the shift in focus, they still boast Wesco North-leading receiver Conner Coleman. The senior has 56 receptions for 1,224 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Lake Stevens isn't showing any nerves about going up against one of the state's football juggernauts. Skyline has won three of the past four state titles since becoming a 4A school in 2008. The other year, 2010, it finished second.
"We had a good week of practice. We're ready to go play," Johnson said. "We're not scared."
The Vikings are coming off a 67-33 quad-district playoff victory over Kentlake. Tri said the big victory gives his team a little added confidence going forward into the state playoffs.
"Last week was certainly a good confidence booster," Tri said. "If we do what we're supposed to do, we'll be where we want to be. ... We know it's a big game and we're excited. I think our kids are mentally ready. We're tired of hitting each other in practice. We're ready to play the game."
When he told his team who their first-round matchup would be, Tri said there was some murmuring amongst the players, but that they immediately were excited and focused for the challenge at hand.
After a good week of practice, the Vikings believe they're ready for the challenge. They also sound strikingly similar to their coach.
"I'm really excited," Johnson said. "You want to be the best, you've got to beat the best."
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