Two and a half weeks ago, the Lake Stevens football team survived a scare from upstart Kamiak and pulled out a close win to remain unbeaten.
But the Vikings also suffered a significant loss that night.
Grayson Murren, the team’s standout senior quarterback, fractured his leg in the victory.
Murren, a first-year starter who waited his turn while backing up standout Tanner Jellison the past two seasons, operated Lake Stevens’ juggernaut attack with striking efficiency this fall. In six games, the 6-foot-5 Murren completed 73.1% of his passes for 1,291 yards, 18 touchdowns and just three interceptions. And he didn’t take a single sack.
“He had a tremendous season going up to the injury,” Vikings coach Tom Tri said.
According to Tri, there’s hope Murren can return sometime this postseason if Lake Stevens keeps winning. But in the meantime, the Vikings have had to go forward without their standout quarterback.
For many teams, that’d be too great a challenge to overcome.
Lake Stevens, however, has kept on rolling.
The Vikings got creative in the de facto Wesco 4A championship game on Oct. 29, riding star running back Jayden Limar and a newly installed Wildcat rushing attack to a 34-28 win over rival Glacier Peak.
And in this past Saturday’s winner-to-state round — with another heavy dose of Limar, an impressive varsity debut by freshman quarterback Kolton Matson and a big performance from standout senior receiver Drew Carter — Lake Stevens routed Emerald Ridge 63-21 to earn its seventh consecutive state playoff berth.
The No. 3 seed Vikings (8-0) host No. 14 seed Richland (8-2) on Saturday in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs.
“Football is not just one player,” Tri said. “Obviously, losing Grayson hurts. But it’s 11 on 11 — not one on one. And so if we can find guys to just to go out and do their job, then everyone else will help pick you up a little bit (and) good things are gonna happen. And for the most part, that’s what happened.”
Lake Stevens entered its first game without Murren — the de facto Wesco 4A title game against Glacier Peak — with sophomore Kaden LaPlaunt as its only healthy quarterback. LaPlaunt had thrown just four varsity passes all season.
The Vikings started the game in their usual spread offense. But after LaPlaunt threw an interception on their first possession, Lake Stevens switched to a Wildcat package and ran that for most of the night.
That meant Limar — a four-star junior running back with scholarship offers from the likes of Michigan, Notre Dame and Texas A&M — was taking snaps out of the shotgun as the Wildcat quarterback. His talented younger brother, freshman Jayshon Limar, was lined up next to him at running back. And another player, usually speedy senior receiver Trayce Hanks, ran horizontally across the formation in motion as the ball was being snapped.
That gave the Vikings three top-tier rushing options — Jayden Limar, Jayshon Limar and Hanks — on most plays.
“We wanted to keep the ball in Jayden’s hands and let our leaders be leaders,” Tri said after the game. “And that’s exactly what they did.”
And though it was a bit strange to see Lake Stevens spend nearly the entire game on the ground, the end result was another big night for the Vikings’ offense.
Lake Stevens, excluding sacks, rushed for a whopping 343 yards on 48 carries. Jayden Limar led the way with 204 yards rushing on 26 attempts, as well as a 50-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass.
“Our guys have just been resilient all year,” Tri said after the game. “They’ve stepped up when we’ve asked them to. I mean, we asked Jayden to play literally three different positions (on offense). … I’m just dumbfounded by his versatility.”
The Vikings’ success in the Wildcat that night was even more impressive considering they had only practiced the package for a few days.
Tri and his staff decided to install the Wildcat on the Sunday before the game — two days after Murren’s injury. However, Limar was on a recruiting trip to Notre Dame that weekend. He was supposed to be back for that Monday’s practice, but his flight got delayed.
“We had to wait until Tuesday before we could even really start putting this package together,” Tri said. “So we only had about three days. … We ran plays that we didn’t even practice before, just because we didn’t have enough versatility in our Wildcat package.
“But we realized that (Jayden) was our best quarterback and that they were struggling to stop it. And so I was making stuff up on the fly, literally, and yelling it and screaming it.”
With their pivot to the Wildcat, the Vikings found a way to beat Glacier Peak.
But for the second week in a row, they suffered a blow to their quarterback position.
LaPlaunt, who finished the game 5-of-8 passing for 104 yards, two TDs and two interceptions, suffered a concussion after taking a hard hit on a fourth-quarter TD pass, according to Tri. The Glacier Peak defender was flagged for targeting, and LaPlaunt exited the game. He ended up being ruled out for the ensuing winner-to-state contest against Emerald Ridge.
Fortunately for the Vikings, another quarterback returned to health just in the nick of time.
Matson, a talented freshman, had been sidelined nearly the entire season after suffering an elbow injury to his non-throwing arm in the Lake Stevens freshman team’s first game of the fall, according to Tri. He was cleared to return last Monday, just five days prior to the Emerald Ridge game.
It was quite the situation for a freshman to walk into — coming off an injury and making his first-ever varsity start in a winner-to-state contest, having never thrown a varsity pass before.
But Matson wasn’t the least bit fazed.
With the Vikings’ back in their usual spread offense for the entire game, Matson completed 11 of 12 passes for 229 yards, one TD and no interceptions while helping lead Lake Stevens to 63 points.
“He just kept taking what the defense was giving him,” Tri said. “He didn’t try to push the ball into areas (it) didn’t belong. He just called the play and let it happen and just got the ball out. And he was very successful. He was a gamer for us. That was awesome to see that he could answer that challenge and go out and play like that as a freshman.”
Matson’s top target was Carter, who had seven catches for 148 yards and a TD. He also got plenty of help from his team’s rushing attack, which piled up 293 yards and seven TDs on 33 carries. Jayden Limar led the way again, rushing for 195 yards and four scores on 20 carries.
Over the past two games, excluding sacks, the Vikings have rushed for 636 yards and 7.9 yards per carry. That includes 399 yards from Jayden Limar.
“He just has really carried us offensively,” Tri said. “He’s led us in every different direction this whole season. … And I just couldn’t be more impressed with his leadership and his ability to step up and do whatever we’ve asked of him.”
Tri also praised his offensive line, which returned only one starter from this past spring’s abbreviated season. He said the growth that position group — which includes sophomore left tackle Bryce Slezak, senior left guard Dylan Slezak, junior center Grant Lynch, junior right guard Ashten Hendrickson and junior right tackle Micah Avery — has been a big factor behind Lake Stevens’ success in a more run-heavy attack the past two weeks.
“They’ve been the biggest pleasant surprise for our whole coaching staff,” Tri said.
After LaPlaunt was cleared to return to practice Monday, Tri said both Matson and LaPlaunt will be available for this week’s state opener. As of Monday night, Tri said the Vikings haven’t yet named a starter.
“Luckily, we’ve got two young quarterbacks, and they’re both really good athletes and quick learners and understand our system pretty well,” Tri said. “And they’ve got a lot of talent to help carry them — with our receivers, and Jayden and Jayshon at running back, and a good, strong offensive line.
“We’ve been blessed with guys that can throw the ball a little bit and have been just doing a good job of leading the offense without having to try to do too much,” he added. “Just keeping it simple, getting the ball out to our athletes and letting the athletes go make plays.”
Matson and LaPlaunt also both have a mentor on the coaching staff who was in a similar situation just a few years ago.
Tre Long, now Lake Stevens’ quarterback coach, started two playoff games at quarterback in 2017 after standout senior Conor Bardue suffered an injury. Long played admirably in those two games, and then helped lead the Vikings to the 4A state title game as a senior the following year.
“The irony is Tre Long is now on (our) coaching staff,” Tri said. “So he’s had a lot of personal conversations with both Kaden and Kolton about his story.”
At this point, it’s unclear whether Lake Stevens will get Murren back this season. But the past two weeks, the Vikings have found ways to keep their perennial powerhouse program churning along.
And as the state playoffs begin, they’re confident they can keep winning — no matter the circumstance.
“We’ve got this,” Jayden Limar said after the win over Glacier Peak. “I know our team. We can pull it off no matter what.”