A group of Lake Stevens defenders take down a Graham-Kapowsin ball carrier during the Vikings’ 42-28 win over the Eagles in last week’s Class 4A state semifinal. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A group of Lake Stevens defenders take down a Graham-Kapowsin ball carrier during the Vikings’ 42-28 win over the Eagles in last week’s Class 4A state semifinal. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Versatile defense plays key role in Lake Stevens’ run to title game

The Vikings’ flexible defense has slowed down a variety of offenses en route to another 4A state championship game trip.

During the Lake Stevens football team’s run to the Class 4A state championship game, star running back Jayden Limar and the Vikings’ high-powered offense have garnered most of the attention.

But while Limar & Co. have been busy lighting up scoreboards, the less-heralded Lake Stevens defense has turned in steady performances week after week.

Down the stretch, the deep and versatile unit has consistently found ways to stymie opposing attacks.

It’s a big reason why the Vikings are back on the doorstep of their program’s first-ever state crown.

“Our defense has been tremendous,” Lake Stevens coach Tom Tri said.

The Vikings have allowed just 19.4 points and 298 total yards per game this season on defense, while holding all 11 of their in-state opponents to 28 points or fewer.

They’ve been strong against the run, surrendering just 4.5 yards per carry. They’ve been strong against the pass, coming up with 18 interceptions while limiting opponents to a 55% completion rate and just 14 touchdown passes.

And they’ve had success against a variety of different offensive styles — from Bellevue’s Wing-T and Gonzaga Prep’s triple-option, to the more spread-based attacks of Eastlake, Glacier Peak and North Creek.

Lake Stevens’ defense will be in the spotlight Saturday night at Mount Tahoma Stadium in Tacoma, where the second-seeded Vikings (11-2) are set to face fourth-seeded Kennedy Catholic (12-1) in the 4A state title game.

Lake Stevens is tasked with slowing down a high-scoring Kennedy Catholic offense that excels with its Air Raid passing attack, but can also mix in the run-oriented Wing-T as a change of pace.

“We’ve been flexible enough that we can get into different fronts with different personnel packages,” Tri said. “We can get into a five-man defensive line and play man coverage. We also can get into a four-man or three-man defensive line and play with three or four linebackers — or even put an extra defensive back on the field and change our coverages around.

“And so that’s really helped us be adaptable to other teams’ strengths. Years past, we try to do that, but sometimes you don’t always have the right personnel to be able to do those things. This year, I feel like we do.

“And our coaches have done a really good job of teaching it and getting the kids to understand their job and responsibility, so that they can still line up and play fast.”

Lake Stevens linebacker Joe McGinnis (bottom) and nickelback Steven Lee Jr. (top) bring down a Federal Way ball carrier. (John Gardner / Pro Action Image)

Lake Stevens linebacker Joe McGinnis (bottom) and nickelback Steven Lee Jr. (top) bring down a Federal Way ball carrier. (John Gardner / Pro Action Image)

The Vikings allowed 400-plus total yards in three of their first four games, while opening the season 2-2 against an ultra-tough non-league slate. That included a 45-6 blowout loss to eventual Oregon 6A state champion West Linn in Week 4.

But since then, Lake Stevens has held every opponent to fewer than 370 yards. Over their nine-game win streak, the Vikings have surrendered just 14.1 points and 235 yards per contest.

In Week 6, Lake Stevens limited eventual 4A state qualifier Eastlake to 14 offensive points and 272 yards. In Weeks 7 and 8, the Vikings yielded just 10 points combined to Mariner and Kamiak. In Week 9, they held Glacier Peak and its array of offensive weapons to 17 points and 276 yards.

In the winner-to-state round, Lake Stevens blanked Bethel. In their state opener, the Vikings limited North Creek to 14 points and 252 yards prior to a pair of late scores against their backups. In the state quarterfinals, they held Gonzaga Prep’s triple-option attack to 10 points and 251 yards prior to a late score against their reserves.

And last week, Lake Stevens came up with enough defensive stops to prevail for a 42-28 state semifinal win over defending champion Graham-Kapowsin.

“All the past games kind of built up to right now,” Vikings senior defensive end Cole Becker said. “We’ve played a whole bunch of different offenses. And each week, (we’re) just getting stronger and stronger.”

The Vikings have allowed just 14.1 points and 235 yards per contest during their nine-game win streak. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The Vikings have allowed just 14.1 points and 235 yards per contest during their nine-game win streak. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Over the course of the season, Lake Stevens has consistently shown an ability to make in-game defensive adjustments.

After Bellevue rode its vaunted Wing-T rushing attack to 21 first-half points against the Vikings in Week 2, Lake Stevens limited the defending 3A state champions to just seven second-half points en route to a signature non-league victory.

After an opening-drive touchdown by Eastlake, the Vikings held the Wolves’ offense to just seven points the rest of the game.

After Glacier Peak scored 10 points on its first two possessions, Lake Stevens limited the Grizzlies to just seven points the rest of the way.

After North Creek nearly scored on its opening possession and found the end zone on its second drive, the Vikings held the Jaguars to just seven points over their next seven possessions.

And after Gonzaga Prep marched downfield for an opening-drive TD, Lake Stevens limited the Bullpups to just three points over their next seven possessions.

Tri and Becker both credited defensive coordinator Eric Dinwiddie, who has a knack for spotting what opposing offenses are doing and making the proper adjustments on the fly.

“That has a lot to do with Dinwiddie just being a great coach,” Becker said. “He sees something that we don’t see and he’ll let us know. And once we make that switch, we shut ‘em down.

“It’s just little things that (the coaches) notice that we’re not quite developed enough to notice. We’ve just gotta trust the coaches. And once they tell us what to fix and we do it, it always works out.”

Lake Stevens defensive lineman Bryce Slezak comes up with a tackle for loss against Bellevue. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Lake Stevens defensive lineman Bryce Slezak comes up with a tackle for loss against Bellevue. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Up front, the Vikings are anchored by first-team All-Wesco 4A senior defensive ends Ashten Hendrickson and Becker. Hendrickson has a team-high 3.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss, while Becker leads the team with 20 tackles for loss.

“Both of them are versatile against the run and the pass,” Tri said. “They’re high-quality, high-motor guys.”

Along the interior defensive line, Lake Stevens rotates through a deep group that includes senior Aaron Parker, junior Naveer Kaile, senior Micah Avery, junior Bryce Slezak and senior Grant Lynch.

“Our D-tackles have done a good job of getting off blocks and allowing our linebackers to roam freely,” Tri said. “We have the type of D-tackles that demand double teams. And when you demand a double team, that allows your linebackers to come up and make plays.”

The middle of the Vikings’ defense features a pair of first-team all-league linebackers in senior Joe McGinnis and junior Mason Turner. They each have 15 tackles for loss.

“They’re kind of the generals of the defense,” Becker said. “… We put all our faith in them — just knowing they’re gonna do their job, fill the gaps and do what they do best.”

Lake Stevens free safety David Brown delivers a hit on Glacier Peak quarterback River Lien. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Lake Stevens free safety David Brown delivers a hit on Glacier Peak quarterback River Lien. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The secondary is highlighted by first-team all-league senior cornerback Isaac Redford, who has seven interceptions and a pick-six.

“Isaac’s ability to flip his hips and stick his foot in the ground and go play the ball is why he’s got seven picks this year,” Tri said. “He anticipates really well.

“He’ll also kind of almost bait the quarterback into throwing the ball and thinking that the receiver’s open — when in reality Isaac’s got him locked down and is just waiting for the ball (to) go make a play.”

Redford is complemented by a versatile group of other defensive backs.

Junior nickelback Steven Lee Jr. earned first-team all-league honors. Gabe Kylany, a junior who plays the hybrid “Viking” position, provides flexibility with his pass coverage and run defense. Junior free safety David Brown has snagged three interceptions, including a diving pick that helped seal last week’s state semifinal win.

And opposite of Redford, junior Paul Varela and sophomore Cassidy Bolong-Banks split time at the other cornerback spot.

“Everyone has a job to do and they all execute the job,” Redford said. “And when we need a play, everyone’s hungry to be that person to make that play.”

Lake Stevens defensive backs Paul Varela and Steven Lee Jr. force a fumble against North Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Lake Stevens defensive backs Paul Varela and Steven Lee Jr. force a fumble against North Creek. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Lake Stevens’ defense has sure made a lot of big plays lately, with 13 of its 18 interceptions and 18 of its 26 takeaways coming over the past six games.

That’s meant a lot of use for the Vikings’ “turnover helmet.”

In 2018, Lake Stevens started a tradition that involves a steel replica Viking helmet. After games, any defender who forces a turnover gets to put on the helmet and pose for a photo, which then gets placed on the locker room wall.

“We’re always trying to win the turnover battle,” Becker said. “We know we’ve got a good chance to win if we do that. So it’s a big goal.”

Lake Stevens struggled on defense in its previous two trips to the 4A state championship game, giving up 52 points in the 2018 title game loss to Union and 44 points in last year’s title game loss to Graham-Kapowsin.

The Vikings look to change that trend Saturday night, when they take aim at the program’s first state crown.

Kennedy Catholic’s offense poses a formidable challenge, averaging 44 points per game behind a talented group of playmakers and its unique mix of the Air Raid and Wing-T.

But Lake Stevens believes its defense is up to the task.

“I feel like our kids will be ready to see both styles of offense and be able to handle it and adapt quickly and try to take away their strengths,” Tri said.

“We’re excited to show how we stack up,” Becker added.

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