TACOMA — As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Lake Stevens players poured onto the field for a frenzied celebration that was years in the making.
They leaped across the Mount Tahoma Stadium turf, tossed their helmets in the chilly air and basked in the joy of completing that elusive final step in their program’s ascent.
After years of knocking on the door, Lake Stevens has broken through and reached the mountaintop.
At long last, the Vikings are state champions.
Macray Flanders hit a go-ahead 22-yard field goal with just over five minutes remaining and second-seeded Lake Stevens captured its first-ever state title with a 24-22 win over fourth-seeded Kennedy Catholic in the Class 4A state championship game Saturday night.
“It’s amazing for this whole city,” Vikings star running back Jayden Limar said. “If you’ve never been to our city, you don’t understand how big football is. … This means everything.”
For the better part of the past decade, Lake Stevens has been one of the state’s premier programs.
During their run of eight consecutive 4A state playoff appearances, the Vikings have advanced to six state quarterfinals, four state semifinals and three state championship games.
They reached the title game in 2018, falling to Union. They made it back to the title game last year, falling to nationally ranked Graham-Kapowsin.
This time, they hoisted the trophy and added the final crowning achievement to their program’s success-filled legacy.
“I’ll have a smile on my face for a long time,” 18th-year Lake Stevens coach Tom Tri said. “That was 18 years in the making right there. Finally we found a way to get over the hump and get it done.”
This group of Vikings was on a year-long mission that began with last season’s championship game loss.
“We talked about it every day,” Tri said. “Our ultimate goal was to go down back to Mount Tahoma and go win a state championship. … We really have been doing this for 364 days. And here we are. We found a way to do it.”
As Limar and the high-powered Lake Stevens offense lit up scoreboards week after week, the Vikings’ steady defense spent most of the season in a bit of an unsung role.
But on Saturday night, the defense took center stage.
Lake Stevens (12-2) kept Kennedy Catholic’s high-scoring Air Raid attack in check for most of the contest, limiting the Lancers to just 15 offensive points and 237 total yards. It was a far cry from Kennedy Catholic’s per-game season averages of 44 points and 426 yards.
And with the Vikings clinging to a two-point lead in the final minutes, it was their defense that helped close out the victory with a pair of stops.
“Our defense was nails all night long,” Tri said. “They really were. They found a way to get some pressure on the quarterback, and our (defensive backs) covered really well when we needed them and made some plays. That’s why we won the game.”
Limar, meanwhile, punctuated his sensational season with a gutsy showing.
Just seven days prior, the Notre Dame-bound senior tailback suffered a high-ankle sprain in the closing minutes of Lake Stevens’ state semifinal win. He was limited to a total of just 10 to 15 reps all week during practice, according to Tri.
And yet, Limar still compiled another dazzling performance. The electrifying four-star recruit rushed for 185 yards and one touchdown on 33 carries, including a big gain that helped set up the game-winning field goal.
“I wasn’t able to walk for about two or three days,” Limar said. “But I was able to fight through that to come out here and play.”
At quarterback, Lake Stevens sophomore Kolton Matson delivered several big throws and finished 14-of-25 passing for 182 yards, two TDs and no interceptions.
Matson was thrust into a tough situation in last year’s title game, when he started as a freshman in place of injured standout quarterback Grayson Murren.
With an added year of experience under his belt, Matson came through in several key moments Saturday night.
Late in the first half, Matson found senior Isaac Redford for a 16-yard TD pass on third-and-goal. And in the closing moments of the third quarter, Matson connected with senior Cole Becker for a 23-yard catch-and-run TD pass on fourth down.
“He’s done a tremendous job this year of leading this group,” Tri said. “… You could see his progression week by week. He just kept getting better (and) getting more confidence.”
In a tense back-and-forth contest filled with momentum swings, the biggest sequence came early in the fourth quarter.
Leading 22-21 with less than nine minutes to play, Kennedy Catholic (12-2) rolled the dice and decided to go for it on a fourth-and-13 from midfield. The gamble backfired, as the Lancers took a deep shot downfield and couldn’t connect.
On the ensuing snap, Limar rattled off a 25-yard run. A few plays later, the Vikings extended the drive by drawing Kennedy Catholic offside on fourth-and-3. Lake Stevens then moved down to the 5-yard line to set up a short field goal.
In the third quarter, Kennedy Catholic had blocked a potential go-ahead field goal attempt by Flanders.
But the protection was good this time, and the senior kicker drilled the ball through the uprights to give the Vikings a 24-22 lead with 5:13 to play.
“That’s just a surreal feeling,” Flanders said of his championship-deciding kick. “That’s only something you hear about in movies. … I’m just so happy to do this for this town.”
On the ensuing Kennedy Catholic possession, Lake Stevens came up with back-to-back sacks to force a three-and-out and a punt from the Lancers’ own 2-yard line. The Vikings got the ball back on the Kennedy Catholic 35, with a chance to seal the game.
But on the very next play, Limar committed a rare fumble that handed possession right back to the Lancers. Kennedy Catholic then proceeded to drive to the Lake Stevens 49 with just over two minutes remaining.
With the state title hanging in the balance, the Vikings’ defense came up with another stop.
After a 3-yard gain on first down, the Lancers turned the ball over on downs with three consecutive incompletions. The final incompletion was a deep overthrow on fourth-and-7 that appeared to be a tad rushed due to pressure from a Lake Stevens blitz.
“Our defense, they didn’t panic,” Tri said. “We just kept playing. And sure as heck, made a couple plays there at the end.”
A few moments later, Limar powered his way to a game-clinching first down and the Vikings ran out the clock to secure their first state championship.
“It’s the most satisfying thing that’s ever happened in my life,” said Limar, who’s one of the top senior running back recruits in the nation. “It does not compare to any (college) offer. Offers don’t matter compared to this. This is the best feeling I’ve ever had.”
A pair of Lake Stevens defensive linemen set the tone on the game’s opening possession, when junior Bryce Slezak tipped a pass into the air that senior Ashten Hendrickson snagged for an interception.
The Vikings took over in Kennedy Catholic territory and drove for a quick score, grabbing an early 7-0 lead on a 5-yard TD run by Limar.
That remained the margin until beyond the midway point of the second quarter, when the Lancers’ ball-hawking defense struck with its sixth defensive score of the season.
With Lake Stevens on the Kennedy Catholic 30 and threatening to extend its lead, senior Mason Hayes came off the edge and hit Matson to knock the ball free. Arizona State-bound senior linebacker Xe’Ree Alexander scooped up the fumble and returned it 64 yards for a game-tying TD.
“We made some uncharacteristic mistakes tonight,” Tri said. “We kind of shot ourselves in the foot a little bit. … But we always believed. We knew we had a great group and we knew we were gonna be resilient.”
The Vikings answered with an 80-yard scoring march, which Limar extended with a 28-yard gain on fourth-and-2. Matson capped the drive by rolling out to the right on third-and-goal and delivering his 16-yard TD pass to Redford, which gave Lake Stevens a 14-7 lead with 1:25 left in the half.
The Lancers didn’t take long to respond.
After Kennedy Catholic sophomore starting quarterback Devon Forehand suffered a collarbone injury, backup senior Payton Faker came in and led the Lancers 65 yards in just three plays. Faker lofted a 31-yard TD pass to senior Maclane Watkins with 38 seconds left in the half, and Alexander ran in the ensuing 2-point conversion attempt to give the Lancers a 15-14 edge.
The Vikings had a chance to regain the lead on their second possession of the third quarter, but Kennedy Catholic blocked a 37-yard field-goal attempt.
But Lake Stevens forced a three-and-out and got the ball back just inside midfield after a good punt return by junior Paul Varela.
Five plays later, Matson and Becker connected for their go-ahead TD on fourth-and-7. Becker hauled in the pass over the middle, raced around the edge and snuck inside the left pylon for a 23-yard score to give the Vikings a 21-15 lead in the final seconds of the third quarter.
“The man is just clutch,” Becker said of his sophomore quarterback.
Kennedy Catholic answered right back. Faker uncorked a deep 53-yard pass to junior Isaac Syph and Alexander plowed in for a 1-yard TD a few plays later. The ensuing extra point gave the Lancers a 22-21 edge with 10:32 remaining.
Lake Stevens went three-and-out on its next possession, but got the ball back after the Lancers’ turnover on downs at midfield.
The Vikings then drove for the deciding field goal and held on with back-to-back defensive stops.
“We had to knuckle up and find a way to hunker down and get stops on defense in the second half,” Tri said. “And we did. And we put just enough points on the board to win the game.”
Redford finished with a team-high six catches for 79 yards and one TD for Lake Stevens. Sophomore receiver Cassidy Bolong-Banks added three catches for 58 yards.
For Kennedy Catholic, Faker and Forehand went a combined 14-of-35 passing for 209 yards, one TD and one interception. Alexander led the Lancers with 91 total yards and one TD on 17 offensive touches.
The Vikings held Kennedy Catholic to a mere 4.2 yards per play. The Lancers mustered just 28 yards rushing on 21 carries, including the back-to-back sacks in the fourth quarter.
“We stopped their run game (and) kind of turned them into being a little bit more one-dimensional, where they had to throw the ball,” Tri said. “And then we started getting pressure on them. And that’s when we started making some plays.”
Lake Stevens overcame some early-season adversity after opening 2-2 against an ultra-tough non-league slate, including a Week 4 blowout loss to eventual Oregon 6A state champion West Linn.
But the Vikings righted the ship and closed the season on a 10-game win streak, capped by the biggest victory in their program’s decorated history.
“This moment is surreal,” Becker said. “We put so much effort in the offseason and the season. We’ve been through so many ups and downs — so many bumps and bruises throughout the year. But we came out on top. It’s all worth it now.”
And no doubt, it was also a special moment for the countless players on previous Lake Stevens teams who helped elevate the program and laid the foundation for this group’s success.
“When we’re out here, we know we’re not playing just for ourselves,” Becker said. “We’re playing for everybody else who played (before us). So it’s bigger than just us.”
The Vikings are the first Snohomish County prep football team to win the 4A or 3A state title since Cascade captured the 4A state crown in 1991.
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.
But now, it’s official.
After four runner-up finishes in the state playoffs — at the 3A level in 1985 and 1994, and the 4A level in 2018 and 2021 — the Vikings are state champions.
“It’s been a long time in the making,” Tri said. “It just feels really good that we can finally bring that trophy back to Lake Stevens.”
Herald writer Zac Hereth compiled the video highlights.