After a COVID-related program shutdown ultimately wiped out its first two games, the powerhouse Lake Stevens High School football team makes its long-awaited season debut Friday night.
Its opponent? None other than Class 3A state juggernaut O’Dea.
The 4A No. 7-ranked Vikings square off against the 3A top-ranked Fighting Irish at Seattle’s Memorial Stadium in a massive showdown between two of the state’s premier prep football programs.
Even though it’s a non-league game, it’s arguably one of the biggest regular-season matchups in the state this fall. But for Lake Stevens, it’s also simply a chance to finally line up against an opponent.
“We’re excited for the opportunity to just get a chance to play,” Vikings coach Tom Tri said. “We’ve seen everybody else playing now for two weeks.
“It just seems like all we do is practice,” he added with a laugh.
Seven-time defending Wesco 4A champion Lake Stevens was originally scheduled to open its season against a pair of top KingCo 4A teams, with intriguing matchups against Eastlake on Sept. 3 and Mount Si on Sept. 10.
But as a result of COVID-19 protocols after two players tested positive, the Vikings suspended team activities from Aug. 24 through Sept. 3. That wiped out their first two games — the Eastgame game because it occurred during the program shutdown, and the Mount Si game because players wouldn’t have accumulated the minimum 12 practices by then.
Lake Stevens returned to the field on Sept. 4 and has been practicing since. But because the Vikings’ Aug. 27 jamboree against Monroe and Snohomish also was canceled, they’ve yet to face an opponent besides themselves.
“We’re tired of practicing at this point and ready to play someone, for sure,” Tri said. “I think (for) the kids, you can only run the same concepts and same plays against the same kids for so long.”
The closest thing to a real game for Lake Stevens was an intrasquad scrimmage last Saturday night.
“That was the first real live tackling we’ve had really all year,” Tri said. “That was really good, because we found out that we had some work to do with tackling. So, better to find out in a scrimmage than on a Friday night playing O’Dea.”
Friday night’s matchup features two programs that are perennial state-title contenders in their respective classifications.
Lake Stevens has reached four of the past five 4A state quarterfinals, including a run to the state championship game in 2018.
O’Dea, one of the most accomplished programs in state history, has reached each of the past four 3A state title games and won a state championship in 2017.
And already, the Fighting Irish have established themselves as the clear-cut favorite in 3A this season. O’Dea opened with a pair of impressive wins over preseason 4A top-10 teams in their first two games, beating Union 35-17 and routing Kennedy Catholic 49-0.
“They’re certainly one of the top teams in the state,” Tri said. “They’re extremely well-coached, big, strong, fast, athletic and very physical, which presents a lot of challenges and problems in it of itself — let alone, just trying to get our guys to line up (correctly), knowing that it’s Week 1 for us.”
O’Dea features a massive offensive line led by a pair of big-time college recruits: 6-foot-4, 330-pound senior tackle Mark Nabou and 6-foot-5, 330-pound sophomore guard Isendre Ahfua.
Nabou, ranked by 247Sports as the nation’s No. 56 senior offensive lineman, has scholarship offers from the likes of Texas, Texas A&M and Michigan. Ahfua, the nation’s top-ranked sophomore offensive lineman, already holds offers from elite programs like Alabama, Georgia and LSU.
“It’s one of the best offensive lines I think I’ve seen in my years as a head football coach,” Tri said. “… I mean, they look like a Division I college football team when you watch them.”
The Fighting Irish’s college-sized offensive line paves the way for a high-powered rushing attack, led by electric sophomore running back Jason Brown. Ranked by 247Sports as the No. 23 overall sophomore recruit in the nation, Brown already has offers from Texas, Texas A&M, Oregon and others.
Brown rushed for 284 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries in O’Dea’s season-opening win over Union, scoring on runs of 21, 80 and 22 yards.
“They’re gonna run the ball between the tackles and to the edge,” Tri said. “They can do both really well. … And then obviously (they have a) dynamic playmaker who can catch the ball out of the backfield, run with great vision, can run you over (and) make you miss.”
Lake Stevens, meanwhile, is exceptionally young this season, with just three returning starters on offense and four on defense. But the Vikings, as usual, have some big-time playmakers.
Two-way standout Jayden Limar, ranked by 247Sports as the nation’s No. 7 junior running back, has offers from the likes of Michigan, Notre Dame and Texas A&M. Limar averaged a whopping 11.7 yards per carry during this past spring’s abbreviated season and totaled 520 yards from scrimmage and nine TDs after taking over as the primary back for the final three games.
Senior receiver/defensive back Drew Carter, a three-star recruit with an offer from Air Force, is another two-way standout for Lake Stevens. Carter had 386 yards receiving and two TD catches in the spring, while also totaling two interceptions, two forced fumbles and five tackles for loss on defense.
And taking over at quarterback is talented 6-foot-5 senior Grayson Murren, who will direct a spread offense known for its high-scoring ways after averaging more than 40 points per game in each of the past seven seasons.
“We’re gonna use our athleticism,” Tri said. “We’re gonna have to do a good job of spreading (O’Dea) out and forcing their big kids to try to chase us down. If we have any type of advantage at all, I think it’s the ability to play in space.
“I think that they probably spend a lot of time in practice running downhill and being physical and working on running the ball, where we spend a little bit more time in our practice throwing downfield and throwing screens and trying to get the ball out in space to our athletes.
“And so if we’re able to do that effectively, I think that gives us a good shot.”
And regardless of what transpires Friday night, it should provide the Vikings a great measuring stick of where they’re at as they embark on yet another season with high expectations.
“We have a good group of guys,” Tri said, “and I’m excited for the chance to go out and compete and see what we can do.”