Left: Lake Stevens running back Jayden Limar (Olivia Vanni/The Herald). Right: Kennedy Catholic wide receiver Mason Hayes (Pete Caster/The News Tribune).

Left: Lake Stevens running back Jayden Limar (Olivia Vanni/The Herald). Right: Kennedy Catholic wide receiver Mason Hayes (Pete Caster/The News Tribune).

4A state title game preview: Lake Stevens vs. Kennedy Catholic

The Vikings are on the doorstep of their 1st state crown. Get ready for the title game with an in-depth look at both teams.

The Lake Stevens football program keeps knocking on the door of that final crowning achievement.

Is this the moment the Vikings break through for the ultimate prize?

Lake Stevens has a chance to capture its first-ever state title Saturday night, when the second-seeded Vikings face fourth-seeded Kennedy Catholic in the Class 4A state championship game at Mount Tahoma Stadium in Tacoma.

“It’s all everyone’s been dreaming about,” Vikings senior standout Isaac Redford said.

Since the mid-2010s, Lake Stevens has been one of the most accomplished high school football programs in the state.

The Vikings have made eight consecutive 4A state playoff appearances. During that span, they’ve reached six state quarterfinals and four state semifinals. And now, they’re making their third state championship game trip in the past four postseasons.

After falling to Union in the 2018 title game and a nationally ranked Graham-Kapowsin team in last year’s championship game, Lake Stevens hopes the third time is the charm.

“Last year was heartbreaking,” Vikings senior standout Cole Becker said. “And since most of us were returning, we wanted it (this year) more than ever.”

Unlike 2018 and 2021, when Lake Stevens took perfect records into the title game, this year’s Vikings overcame some early-season adversity on their journey back to Mount Tahoma Stadium.

Lake Stevens opened the year with the toughest non-league slate in coach Tom Tri’s 18 seasons at the helm.

The Vikings picked up some signature wins, including a Week 2 victory over defending 3A state champion Bellevue. But they also took a pair of losses, suffering a mistake-filled defeat to Garfield in Week 1 and a blowout defeat to eventual Oregon 6A state champion West Linn in Week 4.

The West Linn loss dropped Lake Stevens to 2-2, which marked the first time since 2013 that the Vikings had lost multiple regular-season games.

Due to a Week 5 forfeit from Jackson, Lake Stevens had two weeks to stew after the West Linn drubbing. During that span, Tri said the Vikings had a lot of tough, physical practices.

“The last five or six years, we’ve played music at practice,” Tri said. “We turned the music off after West Linn. We haven’t had music at practice since West Linn.

“We got down to business and became a little more blue-collar and a little bit tougher as a result.”

The Vikings have outscored opponents by nearly 35 points per contest during their nine-game win streak. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The Vikings have outscored opponents by nearly 35 points per contest during their nine-game win streak. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Lake Stevens bounced back in emphatic fashion, routing eventual 4A state qualifier Eastlake in Week 6.

And the Vikings have been rolling ever since.

Lake Stevens enters the state title game on a nine-game win streak, having won all eight of those on-field contests by at least 14 points.

Star running back Jayden Limar and the Vikings’ high-powered offense have averaged nearly 49 points per game during that stretch, while the team’s versatile defense has held opponents to just 14.4 points per contest over that span.

In retrospect, was there a silver lining to those early-season losses?

“You never like to lose,” Tri said. “That’s tough. … (But) I think we’ve really gotten better as a football team as a result of it.

“In years past, when you’re winning, you sometimes maybe don’t focus on your weaknesses as much, because you’re still winning games. Whereas this year, we found out what our weaknesses were and we worked like crazy to get better at those things in practice as the weeks have progressed.

“And we’ve gotten a lot better all the way around on all sides of the ball.”

Lake Stevens’ most recent triumph was a 42-28 win over defending state champion Graham-Kapowsin in last week’s state semifinals. It avenged last year’s title game loss to the Eagles.

But all throughout this year’s run to the championship game, the Vikings have taken a workmanlike approach. They’ve been laser-focused on the ultimate goal.

They aren’t satisfied with just being back in the title game.

“When we beat G-K in the semifinals, no one was really excited like we were (after advancing to the title game) last year,” Redford said. “It was just another roadblock on the way to the end goal.

“So we’re going into this game full head of steam. Everyone knows the goal. Hopefully we can put on a show and execute everything on Saturday.”

Here’s an in-depth preview of the state championship game matchup:

No. 2 LAKE STEVENS vs. No. 4 KENNEDY CATHOLIC

Cole Becker and the Vikings are set to face Kennedy Catholic for the 4A state title. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Cole Becker and the Vikings are set to face Kennedy Catholic for the 4A state title. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

When: Saturday, 5 p.m.

Where: Mount Tahoma Stadium (Tacoma)

Radio: KRKO 1380 AM

Online stream: NFHSNetwork.com

Did you know?: With a victory, Lake Stevens would become the first Snohomish County prep football team to win the 4A or 3A state title since Cascade captured the 4A state championship in 1991.

A rematch, of sorts: Back in late July, Lake Stevens beat Kennedy Catholic 18-12 in the championship game of Lakewood High School’s annual 7-on-7 passing tournament.

STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME HISTORY

Lake Stevens: The Vikings are making their fifth state championship game appearance, including their third in the past four postseasons. Lake Stevens is seeking its first-ever official state title, after losing in all four of its previous state championship games. The Vikings fell 44-7 to Graham-Kapowsin in last year’s 4A title game and 52-20 to Union in the 2018 4A title game. They also fell 7-6 to O’Dea in the 1994 3A title game and 21-12 to Shelton in the 1985 3A title game. Prior to the creation of the state playoffs, Lake Stevens claims a pair of unofficial state championships. The Vikings finished atop the Associated Press state poll in 1966 and beat Granger in an unofficial state title game scheduled between the two schools in 1951.

Kennedy Catholic: The Lancers are making their second state championship game appearance and their first at the 4A level. Their other title game trip came in 2006, when they fell to Bellevue 21-14 in the 3A state championship game. After five-star quarterback Sam Huard led Kennedy Catholic to the 4A state quarterfinals in 2019, the Lancers likely would’ve been a state title favorite during his 2020 senior season. However, the state playoffs were canceled that year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

LAKE STEVENS SEASON RECAP

Led by star running back Jayden Limar, the Vikings are back in the state championship game for the third time in the past four postseasons. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Led by star running back Jayden Limar, the Vikings are back in the state championship game for the third time in the past four postseasons. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Record: 11-2 overall, 4-0 Wesco 4A

Summary: The reigning 4A state runner-up Vikings got off to a 2-2 start while opening with a ultra-tough non-league slate. That included victories over defending 3A state champion Bellevue and eventual 4A state qualifier Federal Way, and losses to talent-laden Garfield and eventual Oregon 6A state champion West Linn. Since the loss to West Linn, Lake Stevens has rattled off nine consecutive victories — all by at least 14 points. The Vikings routed eventual 4A state qualifier Eastlake in Week 6 and then cruised to their ninth consecutive Wesco 4A crown, capped by an emphatic blowout of then-4A-top-ranked Glacier Peak. Lake Stevens then dispatched Bethel, North Creek, Gonzaga Prep and defending champion Graham-Kapowsin to earn a return trip to the state title game.

Week 1: lost to Garfield 26-16

Week 2: beat Bellevue 37-28

Week 3: beat Federal Way 63-21

Week 4: lost to West Linn (Ore.) 45-6

Week 5: beat Jackson via forfeit

Week 6: beat Eastlake 41-16

Week 7: beat Mariner 48-0

Week 8: beat Kamiak 56-10

Week 9: beat Glacier Peak 57-17

Winner-to-state round: beat Bethel 63-0

Kolton Matson threw five first-half touchdown passes — including three to Cole Becker — and the Vikings raced to a 63-0 halftime lead en route to their eighth consecutive state playoff appearance. Lake Stevens held Bethel to just 111 total yards.

State first round: beat No. 15 North Creek 42-27

Jayden Limar piled up 246 total yards and four TDs as the Vikings pulled away to reach the state quarterfinals for the sixth time in the past seven postseasons. Lake Stevens came up with four defensive takeaways and led 42-14 before a pair of late North Creek scores.

State quarterfinals: beat No. 10 Gonzaga Prep 42-17

Limar racked up 284 total yards and five TDs as the Vikings rolled past Gonzaga Prep in the state quarterfinals for the second consecutive year. Lake Stevens shut down the Bullpups’ triple-option attack, limiting them to just 10 points until the final minutes.

State semifinals: beat No. 6 Graham-Kapowsin 42-28

Limar ran for five TDs and threw for another on a halfback pass, as the Vikings beat the defending state champions and avenged last year’s title game loss. After trailing 18-14 at halftime, Lake Stevens surged ahead after the break with a pair of TD drives sandwiched around an onside kick.

KENNEDY CATHOLIC SEASON RECAP

Kennedy Catholic is making its second state championship game appearance and its first at the 4A level. (Pete Caster/The News Tribune)

Kennedy Catholic is making its second state championship game appearance and its first at the 4A level. (Pete Caster/The News Tribune)

Record: 12-1 overall, 6-0 North Puget Sound League 4A

Summary: The Lancers returned 19 starters from last year’s team, which suffered a heartbreaking 43-42 loss to North Creek in the winner-to-state round after surrendering a last-second TD pass and a 2-point conversion on the game’s final play. Kennedy Catholic opened the season with a non-league loss to talent-laden and eventual 3A state finalist Eastside Catholic. Since then, the Lancers have rattled off 12 consecutive victories — all by double digits. Kennedy Catholic cruised to its fourth consecutive North Puget Sound League 4A title, highlighted by a Week 5 rout of eventual 4A state qualifier Federal Way. The Lancers then dispatched Kamiak, Richland, Skyline and Emerald Ridge en route to the state championship game.

Week 1: lost to Eastside Catholic 26-14

Week 2: beat Highline 41-6

Week 3: beat Kentwood 44-13

Week 4: beat Decatur 52-0

Week 5: beat Federal Way 40-8

Week 6: beat Kentridge 56-14

Week 7: beat Auburn Riverside 47-17

Week 8: beat Tahoma 50-7

Week 9: beat Mount Rainier 52-7

Winner-to-state round: beat Kamiak 50-8

Devon Forehand tossed three first-half TD passes to Mason Hayes as the Lancers raced to a 43-0 halftime lead and advanced to the state playoffs. Hayes and Isaac Syph each topped 100 yards receiving, while Kennedy Catholic’s defense came up with four takeaways.

State first round: beat No. 13 Richland 46-35

Xe’Ree Alexander rushed for 252 yards and two TDs on just 13 carries to lead the Lancers into the state quarterfinals. Kennedy Catholic built a 32-7 halftime advantage and led 46-23 in the fourth quarter.

State quarterfinals: beat No. 5 Skyline 38-10

The Lancers came up with five defensive takeaways and rattled off 38 unanswered points to erase an early 10-point deficit and earn their first state semifinal trip since 2006. Hayes had two interceptions — including a pick-six — and Alexander rushed for 140 yards and four TDs. Kennedy Catholic held Skyline to just 159 total yards.

State semifinals: beat No. 8 Emerald Ridge 42-28

Forehand threw for 331 yards and five TDs to lead the Lancers to their second state championship game appearance. Hayes had 153 yards receiving and two TD catches, while Maclane Watkins added 97 yards receiving and two TD receptions. Kennedy Catholic’s defense came up with three interceptions.

LAKE STEVENS OFFENSE

Notre Dame-bound star running back Jayden Limar has piled up 2,144 total yards and 39 touchdowns. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Notre Dame-bound star running back Jayden Limar has piled up 2,144 total yards and 39 touchdowns. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Star running back Jayden Limar has led the way for yet another high-scoring Lake Stevens spread attack.

The Vikings average 42.8 points and 409 total yards per game. They’ve surpassed the 40-point mark in eight straight contests. And they’ve scored 42 points in all three of their state playoff games, while finding the end zone on nearly two-thirds of their possessions over that stretch.

Limar, a four-star Notre Dame commit, has piled up 2,144 total yards and 39 TDs this season with his next-level elusiveness, breakaway speed and diverse skill set.

The electrifying senior back has rushed for 1,818 yards and 35 TDs at a whopping 9.0 yards per carry. He’s added 25 catches for 326 yards and four scores as a dangerous receiving threat. And he’s totaled 710 yards and 14 TDs in his team’s three state playoff games, while even throwing for a TD on a halfback pass last week.

“Jayden Limar is a highlight waiting to happen,” said Mariner coach Tyler Tuiasosopo, whose team faced the Vikings earlier this season. “He’s a phenomenal player.”

Limar exited last week’s state semifinal after tweaking his ankle on a run in the final minutes. But he appeared to be moving around fine after the contest.

Esteban Sedano, a junior, is the backup running back behind Limar. He’s rushed for 275 yards and four TDs.

“I got rolled up on a little bit at the end,” Limar said after last week’s game. “But I went out (of the game) and I knew we were gonna win, so I was like, ‘All right, I’ll just take the rest of the game off.’ But I’ll be good for next week. I’m good.”

Quarterback Kolton Matson directs another high-scoring Lake Stevens spread attack. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Quarterback Kolton Matson directs another high-scoring Lake Stevens spread attack. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

At quarterback, sophomore Kolton Matson has completed 71% of his passes for 1,542 yards, 15 TDs and seven interceptions. He’s also rushed for 228 yards and three scores.

Versatile sophomore receiver Cassidy Bolong-Banks has 461 yards receiving and five TD catches, along with 328 yards and three scores on the ground as a fly-sweep weapon.

Senior tight end Cole Becker has a team-high 548 yards receiving and six TD catches, while senior wideout Isaac Redford has added 439 yards receiving and five TD catches. Both had pivotal drive-extending receptions last week.

“If you just take Jayden away, we’ve got enough weapons that we’re gonna make you pay for that,” Lake Stevens coach Tom Tri said after last week’s win. “And so it’s kind of been a cat and mouse between throwing the ball to our receivers and running the ball with Jayden.”

And up front, a steady offensive line has paved the way for Limar and the Vikings. Led by three-year starting senior center Grant Lynch, the unit has allowed only one sack over the past seven games.

“The O-line is doing a great job in our run game of opening up holes for Jayden and also giving us plenty of time to throw the ball and find open receivers,” Tri said. “That’s really helped our offense flourish.”

LAKE STEVENS DEFENSE

Joe McGinnis (bottom) and Steven Lee Jr. (top) are part of a versatile Lake Stevens defense. (John Gardner / Pro Action Image)

Joe McGinnis (bottom) and Steven Lee Jr. (top) are part of a versatile Lake Stevens defense. (John Gardner / Pro Action Image)

Lake Stevens’ defense allows just 19.4 points and 298 total yards per game. The Vikings have held all 11 of their in-state opponents to 28 points or fewer.

They’ve been strong against the run, surrendering just 4.5 yards per carry. They’ve been strong against the pass, coming up with 18 interceptions while limiting opponents to a 55% completion rate and just 14 TD passes.

And they’ve excelled at making in-game adjustments while facing a variety of different offensive styles — from Gonzaga Prep’s triple-option attack to the more spread-based offenses of Eastlake, Glacier Peak and North Creek.

Lake Stevens’ defensive front is anchored by standout senior defensive ends Ashten Hendrickson and Becker. Hendrickson has a team-high 3.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss, while Becker leads the team with 20 tackles for loss. They’re joined by a deep group of interior linemen that rotate in and out.

The linebacking duo of senior Joe McGinnis and junior Mason Turner provide steady play in the middle of the Vikings’ defense. They both have 15 tackles for loss.

And in the secondary, standout senior cornerback Isaac Redford highlights a versatile group of defensive backs. Redford has seven interceptions, including a pick-six.

“We’ve been flexible enough that we can get into different fronts with different personnel packages,” Tri said. “… And so that’s really helped us be adaptable to other teams’ strengths. Years past, we try to do that, but sometimes you don’t always have the right personnel to be able to do those things. This year, I feel like we do.

“And our coaches have done a really good job of teaching it and getting the kids to understand their job and responsibility, so that they can still line up and play fast.”

LAKE STEVENS SPECIAL TEAMS

Senior kicker Macray Flanders has converted 67 of 71 extra-point attempts and 2 of 4 field-goal attempts. He hit a 42-yard field goal against Bellevue.

Flanders also had a big momentum-swinging play last week, when he recovered his own onside kick in the third quarter of the state semifinal win over Graham-Kapowsin.

Kylany blocked a punt against Bethel in the winner-to-state round.

KENNEDY CATHOLIC OFFENSE

Maclane Watkins is part of a talented receiving corps in Kennedy Catholic’s high-scoring Air Raid attack. (Peter Caster/The News Tribune)

Maclane Watkins is part of a talented receiving corps in Kennedy Catholic’s high-scoring Air Raid attack. (Peter Caster/The News Tribune)

Under seventh-year coach Sheldon Cross, Kennedy Catholic once again features a high-octane Air Raid passing attack.

The Lancers average 44 points and 426 total yards per game. And aside from their season-opening loss to 3A state finalist Eastside Catholic, they’ve scored at least 38 points in every other game.

But this year’s Kennedy Catholic offense includes an added twist. The Lancers have mixed in the run-oriented Wing-T to complement their Air Raid attack, which gives them a change-of-pace look to throw at opposing defenses.

The move was aided by former longtime Bellevue assistant coach Pat Jones, who joined the Kennedy Catholic coaching staff in 2019 after helping orchestrate the vaunted Wing-T offense that carried the Wolverines to a barrage of state titles.

“We’ve gotta stop their spread,” Lake Stevens coach Tom Tri said. “That’s what they want to do. They want to spread the ball (and) throw the ball down the field. But they have a mix-it-up package (that) they’re really good at.”

Sophomore quarterback Devon Forehand directs the Lancers’ Air Raid attack and has completed 69% of his passes for 2,474 yards, 28 TDs and nine interceptions.

Forehand went through a rough stretch recently, throwing no TD passes and a combined seven interceptions in his team’s first two state playoff games. But he bounced back in a major way last week, completing 23 of 28 passes for 340 yards, five TDs and no interceptions in the state semifinal win over Emerald Ridge.

Forehand has a trio of top targets in senior Mason Hayes, senior Maclane Watkins and junior Isaac Syph.

Hayes has a team-high 65 catches for 1,274 yards and 16 TDs, including 156 yards receiving and two TD catches last week. Watkins has 888 yards receiving and 13 TD catches, including 98 yards and two scores last week. And Syph has 509 yards receiving and three TD catches.

“This will be the best receiving group we’ve seen at being able to go high-point the ball down the field,” Tri said. “… What stands out the most about their offense is their explosiveness and variety of skill sets that they have with their receiver group. And then (they have) a young quarterback who does a good job of delivering the ball.”

Xe’Ree Alexander, a three-star linebacker recruit, paces Kennedy Catholic’s rushing attack. The Arizona State commit has run for 885 yards and 17 TDs at a whopping 9.4 yards per carry, including 457 yards and seven scores in the Lancers’ three state playoff games.

Alexander runs behind an offensive line that’s anchored by 6-foot-2, 290-pound USC commit Micah Banuelos, a four-star recruit who’s ranked by 247Sports as the No. 28 senior offensive lineman in the nation.

And when Kennedy Catholic goes into the Wing-T, the versatile Hayes moves under center and is a threat with the ball.

“He’s just a Swiss Army knife at quarterback. He looks like Taysom Hill,” said Tri, referencing the New Orleans Saints’ multi-purpose weapon. “He does a little bit of everything. He’s a stud.”

KENNEDY CATHOLIC DEFENSE

Arizona State-bound linebacker Xe’Ree Alexander (24) anchors the Kennedy Catholic defense. (Cheyenne Boone/The News Tribune)

Arizona State-bound linebacker Xe’Ree Alexander (24) anchors the Kennedy Catholic defense. (Cheyenne Boone/The News Tribune)

Kennedy Catholic has a strong defense that allows just 13.8 points per game. The Lancers have held 10 of their 13 opponents to 17 points or fewer, including six opponents to single digits.

And in addition to keeping opponents off the scoreboard, Kennedy Catholic has excelled at forcing turnovers. The Lancers have come up with 42 defensive takeaways, including 14 takeaways over their four postseason games. They have 21 interceptions, 21 fumble recoveries and five defensive TDs.

Alexander, the three-star Arizona State-bound linebacker, has racked up 17 tackles for loss and six sacks. Junior linebacker Thomas Bevilacqua has a team-high 80 tackles and two interceptions. Hayes highlights a ball-hawking secondary with five interceptions, including four in the postseason.

“They remind me a lot of us,” Tri said of Kennedy Catholic’s defense. “They’re just a well-rounded, fast, physical, athletic defense that runs to the ball well.”

KENNEDY CATHOLIC SPECIAL TEAMS

Syph had a punt-return TD against Kamiak in the winner-to-state round.

PREDICTIONS

Cassidy Bolong-Banks and the Vikings are seeking their program’s first-ever state title. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Cassidy Bolong-Banks and the Vikings are seeking their program’s first-ever state title. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Lake Stevens 35, Kennedy Catholic 27

— Cameron Van Til, Herald writer

Lake Stevens 38, Kennedy Catholic 34

— Zac Hereth, Herald writer

Lake Stevens 38, Kennedy Catholic 28

— Chad Davis, Herald sports editor

Lake Stevens 34, Kennedy Catholic 31

— Steve Willits, Prep Sports Weekly co-host

Lake Stevens 35, Kennedy Catholic 28

— Tom Lafferty, KRKO Radio

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