Lake Stevens players (from left) Anthony Hutchinson, Austin Murren, Blake May, Hunter Eckstrom and Jake Rasmussen have been part of a core group of offensive players that have helped lead the Vikings to dominant victories this season. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Lake Stevens players (from left) Anthony Hutchinson, Austin Murren, Blake May, Hunter Eckstrom and Jake Rasmussen have been part of a core group of offensive players that have helped lead the Vikings to dominant victories this season. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Bardue, talented WRs lead high-octane Lake Stevens offense

LAKE STEVENS — Quarterback Conor Bardue and several up-and-coming Lake Stevens receivers spent most of last season watching from the sidelines as a talented, Jacob Eason-led senior class guided the Vikings to the Class 4A state semifinals.

But after the postseason run came to an end, those sideline spectators wasted little time preparing for their opportunity in the spotlight. With eight offensive starters graduating, Bardue & Co. knew their turn was coming.

“Once the season ended, we all knew that it was our season,” Bardue said. “We were out throwing the ball ever since the winter — two or three times per week — building up that chemistry.”

That chemistry has certainly been evident this fall. Bardue and an elite receiving corps are powering a high-octane Lake Stevens offense that’s hardly missed a beat since last season, even with eight first-time starters. The sixth-ranked Vikings (8-0) are averaging 49.8 points per game and can earn their fourth consecutive Wesco 4A title with a victory over 10th-ranked Monroe (8-0) in Friday night’s showdown of unbeatens.

“We knew we only had three starters coming back on offense,” Lake Stevens head coach Tom Tri said. “But we also knew we had a bunch of young, energetic, hungry guys who want to continue the successes that we’ve had the last few years. So we really felt like we were reloading.”

Much of this year’s offensive success begins with Bardue, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior who had enormous shoes to fill in replacing Eason, last season’s Gatorade National Player of the Year and now the University of Georgia’s starting quarterback. Bardue has risen to the occasion and then some, completing 74.1 percent of his passes for 2,141 yards, 34 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

“He’s been every bit as good as Jacob Eason — if not better — at understanding the play and then getting the ball out on time,” Tri said. “Jacob could overcome some of those deficiencies because he just had a mammoth arm and was able to out-throw some of his mistakes. Conor has a great arm — he can rifle it in there. But he doesn’t always have to do that because he’s been really good at making (those reads).”

Equally important has been Lake Stevens’ prolific collection of receivers, three of whom have at least 500 yards receiving and eight touchdown catches.

The group’s lone returning starter is senior Hunter Eckstrom, who began his football career as an offensive lineman before moving to receiver in eighth grade. “I went through puberty, got a little bit skinnier and it just kind of came to me,” he said of the transition.

After Eckstrom earned first-team All-Wesco 4A honors last year as an outside receiver, the Vikings slid him into the slot this season to maximize his touches and take advantage of his unique blend of athleticism and physicality. Eckstrom has excelled in his new role, hauling in 37 receptions for a team-high 589 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s also the team’s second-leading rusher, with 244 yards and four scores on a healthy dose of fly sweeps.

“Whether it’s a screen, an inside or outside run, or whether we have him running vertical downfield, we’re trying to make the defense worry about where he’s at,” Tri said.

And when the defense becomes preoccupied with Eckstrom, more opportunities arise for receivers such as junior Anthony Hutchinson and senior Jake Rasmussen. Hutchinson has caught 30 passes for 519 yards and eight touchdowns, showcasing his versatility with a combination of vertical and screen routes. Rasmussen has 24 receptions for 550 yards and a team-high 10 touchdowns, including four in the first half of last week’s win over Cascade.

“Jake is one of the best we’ve had in a long time at settling down and finding a hole against coverages, whether it’s against man or zone,” Tri said. “He’s very savvy in his route running.”

Tight end Austin Murren and running back Blake May also provide important contributions to the passing game. Both were receivers last year before selflessly moving to new positions this season to fill voids left by last year’s graduating class. And both have drawn on prior receiving experience at their new spots, with Murren serving as a reliable target at tight end and May as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield.

“Defenses really have a tough time guarding all of us,” Rasmussen said. “If you try to shut one of us down, we’ve got four other guys who are going to be able to step up and make plays.”

That’s a luxury the Vikings are thrilled to have, especially considering the amount of turnover from last year’s team.

“This is their year to shine,” Tri said. “And they’ve made the most of every opportunity.”

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