A gang of Lake Stevens defenders stop Kennedy Catholic’s Xe’Ree Alexander in during the Class 4A state championship game Saturday at Mount Tahoma Stadium in Tacoma. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A gang of Lake Stevens defenders stop Kennedy Catholic’s Xe’Ree Alexander in during the Class 4A state championship game Saturday at Mount Tahoma Stadium in Tacoma. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Notebook: Defense shines in Lake Stevens’ championship game victory

The Vikings set the tone with an early interception and seal the game with key defensive stands.

TACOMA — The Lake Stevens defense was ready from the opening whistle.

On the first drive of Saturday’s Class 4A state title game against Kennedy Catholic, the Vikings’ stout unit gave a glimpse of the stellar performance it was about to deliver.

Grant Lynch applied pressure up front, reached up and batted a Lancers pass. Fellow defensive lineman Ashten Hendrickson swooped in to nab an interception.

The turnover set up the Vikings’ first touchdown.

It also sent the message early that Kennedy Catholic’s high-powered Air Raid offense wasn’t about to get anything easy.

“I felt like that interception set the (tone) for the whole four quarters,” Hendrickson said.

Lake Stevens kept the Lancers, who entered the title game averaging 44 points, off the scoreboard on nine of their 11 drives in its 24-22 championship game victory at Mount Tahoma High School — the program’s first-ever state title.

It was the second lowest scoring output of the season for Kennedy Catholic and just the second time the squad was held below 38 points. The Lancers averaged just 4.2 yards per play and their 237 total yards fell well shy of their 426-yard average for the season.

“I thought from play one we were dialed in to what our game plan was, and it was to make little mistakes and little give-ups with technique or playmakers making plays,” Vikings defensive coordinator Eric Dinwiddie said.

Lake Stevens’ Ashten Hendrickson celebrates an opening-drive interception against Kennedy Catholic in the Class 4A state championship game Saturday at Mount Tahoma Stadium in Tacoma. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Lake Stevens’ Ashten Hendrickson celebrates an opening-drive interception against Kennedy Catholic in the Class 4A state championship game Saturday at Mount Tahoma Stadium in Tacoma. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Lake Stevens did indeed keep Kennedy Catholic’s playmakers in check throughout most of the night. The Lancers’ standout wide receiver tandem of Mason Hayes and Maclane Watkins was held to 106 yards and one TD on seven receptions. The pair averaged 166.3 yards and over two TDs per game.

The Vikings also forced Kennedy Catholic to rely almost solely on its passing attack as they bottled up Arizona State University-bound senior Xe’ree Alexander. The 215-pound running back managed just 46 yards on 14 carries and the Lancers mustered just 28 rushing yards as a team on a paltry 1.3 yards per carry.

“We stopped their run game, kind of turned them into being a little bit more one-dimensional where they had to throw the ball,” Vikings head coach Tom Tri said. “And then we started getting pressure on them and that’s when we started making some plays.”

The Lancers briefly tried to switch to their Wing-T package in the third quarter, but it was immediately stymied by a swarming Lake Stevens defense and led to a punt.

“(Defensive coordinator Eric Dinwiddie) is the reason we were able to contain them,” Lake Stevens senior defensive back Isaac Redford said. “We get the scouting report every single week. He knows exactly what he’s doing. … He sets us up perfectly.”

Dinwiddie’s defensive playcalling shined brightest when the Vikings needed late stops to seal the game.

After Macray Flanders’ 22-yard field goal put Lake Stevens up 24-22, the Lancers received the ball with just over five minutes left in the fourth quarter and plenty of time to mount a game-winning drive.

Dinwiddie decided to dial up the pressure with blitzes and leave his coverage unit in man-on-man situations with Kennedy Catholic’s dangerous playmakers.

The decision netted immediate dividends, as Lake Stevens’ defensive front wreaked havoc in the backfield and the secondary kept tight coverage that made the Lancers rely on completing difficult passes in the waning moments.

Cole Becker nearly came away with an interception on the Lancers’ first play of the drive when he batted down a ball behind the line of scrimmage. Bryce Slezak and Mason Turner teamed up for a sack on the next play and a swarm of Vikings defenders recorded another sack that forced the Lancers to punt out of the back of their own end zone.

“We just did what we normally do and try to … figure out what they’re struggling with,” Dinwiddie said. “… We decided we didn’t want to give the quarterback much time, so we blitzed and went man.”

A Lake Stevens fumble soon after meant the defense was called on again to deliver another stop. The Vikings kept pressuring with blitzes and ultimately forced a turnover on downs near midfield to wrap up the victory.

“Ballsy plays,” Vikings head coach Tom Tri said of the defensive playcalling late in the fourth quarter. “Bringing pressure, going man coverage when they can throw the ball down the field. Those were huge … I love the fact that he had the guts to do that.”

Kennedy Catholic’s two scoring drives came after hitting big plays through air. The Lancers struck with two long passes and reached the end zone on quarterback Payton Faker’s 31-yard TD connection with Watkins to take a 15-14 lead late in the second quarter.

Faker hit another long pass to set up Alexander’s 1-yard TD run for a 22-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.

“Our defense, our secondary played really well,” Tri said. “I know we gave up a couple balls, but overall they played really well. I thought ultimately it was our D-line too that got pressure on the quarterback.”

There weren’t many other offensive highlights for the high-octane Lancers, who punted five times and the turned the ball over on downs three times.

“I’m just proud of these kids for all year just grinding and going through the process,” Dinwiddie said. “Each week is something new, something different. They trust in us and we trust them. We just work and have some fun.”

Sweet redemption

Flanders’ game-winning field goal wasn’t the first time the senior kicker had been called upon to hit a go-ahead kick in the fourth quarter of a state playoff game.

As a freshman in 2019, Flanders had a 23-yard field goal blocked with Lake Stevens trailing Mount Si 24-22 in the final minutes of their quarterfinal game. The Vikings went on to lose by the same score.

That memory entered Flanders’ mind before he attempted his winning kick Saturday.

“That was going through my head,” Flanders said. “But I wasn’t gonna miss this one.”

Flanders also had a kick blocked by Kennedy Catholic in the third quarter, but the senior connected from 22 yards out off the right hash mark to put the Vikings ahead — fittingly at 24-22 — with 5:13 remaining.

“That’s just a surreal feeling,” Flanders said. “That’s only something you hear about in movies and I’m just so happy to have done it. … I’m just so happy to do this for this town.

Lake Stevens kicker MaCray Flanders and holder Luis Alvarado execute a short field goal that would end up being the game-winner against Kennedy Catholic in the Class 4A state championship game Saturday at Mount Tahoma Stadium in Tacoma. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Lake Stevens kicker MaCray Flanders and holder Luis Alvarado execute a short field goal that would end up being the game-winner against Kennedy Catholic in the Class 4A state championship game Saturday at Mount Tahoma Stadium in Tacoma. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Snohomish County’s drought ended

It’s been quite a while since a squad from Snohomish County has won a state title in football in the state’s largest classification — 31 years, to be exact.

The Vikings are the first local team to claim the state’s top prize at the 4A or 3A level since Cascade won the AAA (now 4A) title in 1991.

“It feels really good that we can bring this back to Snohomish County,” Dinwiddie said. “We play some good football up there and we just haven’t been able to finish it.”

The leader of that Bruins team was legendary coach Terry Ennis. Tri and Dinwiddie both played for Ennis at Cascade.

Snohomish (1976 and 1978) is the only other Snohomish County school to win a football state championship at the highest classification.

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