The Lake Stevens offensive line of Micah Avery (left to right), Ashten Hendrickson, Grant Lynch, Dylan Slezak and Bryce Slezak have been an important part of the Vikings’ run to the 4A state championship game. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The Lake Stevens offensive line of Micah Avery (left to right), Ashten Hendrickson, Grant Lynch, Dylan Slezak and Bryce Slezak have been an important part of the Vikings’ run to the 4A state championship game. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Unsung O-line plays key role in Lake Stevens’ run to title game

Smaller and less experienced than usual, the Vikings’ offensive line has still found ways to excel.

It’s one of the smallest offensive lines the Lake Stevens football team has had in recent years.

It’s also one of the youngest and least experienced.

But don’t be fooled.

What these linemen lack in size and varsity starts, they make up for with speed, technique, intelligence and cohesion.

And while the Vikings’ bevy of talented playmakers get most of the headlines, the growth and effectiveness of their offensive line is among the biggest reasons Lake Stevens is playing for a state title.

The third-seeded Vikings (11-0) face top-seeded Graham-Kapowsin (13-0) in Saturday night’s Class 4A state championship game at Mount Tahoma High School.

“They’ve been the biggest pleasant surprise for our whole coaching staff,” Lake Stevens coach Tom Tri said of his offensive line.

“We’re not real big,” he added. “But they’ve done a good job of being physical and really understanding our scheme and executing it really well.”

The Vikings’ offensive line returned only one starter from this past spring’s abbreviated season. There’s only one senior on the unit. Only one lineman is more than 235 pounds.

And yet, this group has paved the way for a powerful ground attack that averages 248 rushing yards per game and 7.5 yards per carry.

This group has allowed just four sacks all season — including only sack with starter Grayson Murren at quarterback.

And with its proficiency both in run blocking and pass protection, this group has helped Lake Stevens’ juggernaut spread offense light up scoreboards once again this fall. The Vikings average 47.3 points and 469 total yards per game.

“They are an incredible group,” said Lake Stevens offensive line coach Geoff Dishion, who’s in his 10th season as an assistant in the program.

“They’re probably my smallest group I’ve ever had. But they’re my fastest group. And so we have to use different techniques to beat these big D-lines we’ve been going against all year. It’s been incredible to watch.”

One of the offensive line’s most impressive performances came in the Vikings’ 34-28 win over Glacier Peak in the regular-season finale and de facto Wesco 4A title game.

With its standout quarterback out with an injury, Lake Stevens largely abandoned the pass that night and went to a Wildcat-heavy rushing attack. And led by their offensive line and star running back Jayden Limar, the Vikings had their way on the ground against a big Glacier Peak defensive front. Lake Stevens, excluding sacks, rushed for a whopping 343 yards on 48 carries.

“(Glacier Peak) knew it was run, we knew it was run, and yet we still ran the ball between the tackles and moved the chains and scored when we needed to,” Tri said after the game.

“I’ve gotta give credit to our O-line and coach Dishion. That whole front five just did an amazing job.”

With his offensive line often facing bigger defenders, Dishion said they’ve altered their pass protection to allow them to strike first, instead of letting bigger opponents initiate contact.

He also said they’re using techniques to capitalize on their leverage and hit a bit lower, instead of going chest to chest.

And the Vikings’ frequent play calls to the outside portions of the field — on runs or screen passes — give their linemen an opportunity to use their speed to their advantage.

“Since we’re not the biggest, we have to be the fastest,” Lake Stevens senior lineman Dylan Slezak said. “So usually when we go against bigger teams, we want to make the big boys run. That’s what we do. And even though we’re not the biggest, we still can get low and push the big boys back.”

Over the course of the game, the superior speed and conditioning of Lake Stevens’ line can leave defensive linemen fatigued.

“We like to get those D-lines chasing our guys, who are just flat-out faster and probably more conditioned,” Dishion said. “And we see it every week with these big guys — they all get tired out.”

Lake Stevens offensive linemen open a running lane for Trayce Hanks. (John Gardner / Pro Action Image)

Lake Stevens offensive linemen open a running lane for Trayce Hanks. (John Gardner / Pro Action Image)

The Vikings’ line is anchored by 6-foot-2, 285-pound junior center Grant Lynch, a first-team All-Wesco 4A selection and the unit’s lone returning starter. As the center in Lake Stevens’ intricate spread attack, Lynch is responsible for calling out the defensive front prior to each play.

“He makes all the calls,” Dishion said. “He’ll even call which direction we run a play. And he’s the one that calls the cadence on the snap as well. So his intelligence is off the charts.

“And he’s our big earth-mover. He’s great in the inside run game. He will crush people.”

The left side is manned by the Slezak brothers, with 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior Dylan Slezak at guard and 6-foot-2, 230-pound sophomore Bryce Slezak at tackle. Due to their age gap, this is their first year playing together.

“It’s just really cool starting next to my brother,” Dylan Slezak said. “My parents, especially, have dreamed about this. So it’s a very cool experience.”

Dylan Slezak, a former tight end, is still relatively new to the offensive line. He didn’t move to the line until the end of this past spring season.

“I’ve been super impressed with Dylan,” Tri said. “… He’s been a quick study.”

Bryce Slezak, meanwhile, was a second-team all-league pick this fall as a sophomore. He reminds Dishion of a young Devin Kylany — the former Vikings standout left tackle who is now on the Washington State University football team.

“He’s as good as anyone in Wesco,” Dishion said. “… His feet are incredible. His speed is incredible. The game is slower for him. He sees things and reacts quicker. He’s super talented.”

The right side consists of 6-foot, 215-pound junior guard Ashten Hendrickson and 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior tackle Micah Avery.

“They’ve both got great feet, they’re smart (and) they use their leverage really well,” Tri said. “And the fact that they have such good feet, we can run our screens and run to the edge and get our offensive linemen out in space on outside linebackers and safeties.

“This has been a very versatile group.”

The group’s biggest challenge is expected to come Saturday night.

Graham-Kapowsin features a massive and dominant defensive front — highlighted by three of the top six senior defensive lineman recruits in the state, according to 247Sports.

But like they have all season — against the bigger defensive fronts of O’Dea, Kamiak and Glacier Peak — the Vikings’ linemen are confident they can have success.

“I’ve never coached a group of kids that were as unfazed by the bright lights as these kids,” Dishion said. “They are just moving forward and taking everyone as they come. … Every week, they’re playing guys that are bigger than them and guys that are supposed to be better than them. But our guys are just getting it done.

“So they’ve got a quiet confidence just in what they do. Our game plan is to do what we do every week — which is run the plays, tire them out, and really pick it up in the second half when they’re tired and make our plays really hit.

“These kids (have) heart and they’re hungry,” he added. “So we’re gonna get after it.”

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