LYNDEN and DEMING, Whatcom County – A biting chill and a light blanket of snow are welcome signs of December football in Northwest Washington.
Traditionally, and nearly every season recently, this has been Lynden High School’s terrain. The Lions have played into December – the ultimate sign that it is Gridiron Classic week – in six of the past eight years. They’ve won four of the past five Class 2A state titles. And they can add to that haul if they slip by Tumwater on Saturday.
They stand as the darling
member of the split-classification Northwest Conference in football. Many would argue they are the charmed son from the old Whatcom County League, set to make their 11th trip to the state finals, tied for second-most all-time in Washington behind Bellevue (12).
But this season, it isn’t all about them. Set to join the party for the first time, from 20 miles down the road, is Mount Baker High School, which will play Freeman for the 1A title.
“I am really happy for those guys,” Lynden coach Curt Kramme said. “We’ve been lucky enough to have gone several times, and I keep reminding our kids … you don’t realize how difficult it is to get there. We’ve been blessed to do it several times, but for the average school in Washington state, that just doesn’t happen.”
Perhaps the real charmed son in the county is Kramme. He was the starting quarterback for the first Whatcom County League school to play for a state football title, leading Blaine to a 20-7 victory over Granger in his final game to win the 1978 1A crown.
He immediately got into coaching while at Western Washington University, and has modeled a lot of his astute detail-oriented style after legendary Burlington-Edison coach Glenn Rickert, form whom he was an assistant before taking over at Lynden.
“I almost felt like I had a model of what a program is supposed to look like,” Kramme said.
Kramme succeeded Ross Boice at Lynden, and led the Lions to the 1A title in his first season in 1991.
Ten years later, they moved up to 3A, and faced perennial powerhouse Bellevue in back-to-back state championship games, losing twice in 2001 and 2002. But after returning to 2A in 2006, they have won five state titles in the past seven seasons.
They are proud — not boastful — of their accomplishments. Jumbo-size photos from their victories hang on the walls in the school weight room. And many of the different generations of helmets used during Kramme’s 22 seasons are stored on a shelf near the entrance.
Mention how the football success has cut into Lynden’s staunch reputation as a basketball-first school, and Kramme pauses. He reaches down to open a desk drawer full of community fan mail, and searches for one particular letter.
It came a couple of years back from a sixth-grader who heartily declared “Lynden is a football town — home of the Lynden Lions.”
“I don’t think you set out and say that is what you are trying to do,” Kramme said. “You just go to work, and it kind of ends up that way.”
This year’s trip back has been a different journey. The Lions lost 19 starters off last season’s championship squad. Unproven to start, they are now undefeated heading to the finish.
“The last few years, everyone was kind of expecting us to go,” said all-state linebacker Jaremy Martin, one of the few returning starters. “And this year has been a little different. People were doubting us, even from our own school, and our own friends. To be able to get here is a good accomplishment.”
For Mount Baker, it is greater than that. It is a historic achievement.
In fact, of all the former Whatcom County League schools, the Mountaineers have enjoyed the least amount of success in boys’ team sports. The last time they played for any sort of boys state team title was in 1973 in basketball.
Their football coach is Ron Lepper, a Cashmere native who played football at Simon Fraser University, located in Burnaby, B.C., about an hour from Whatcom County.
He eventually joined former Clan offensive coordinator Doug Preston on the Mount Baker staff in 1994. After Preston left two years later, Lepper was promoted.
Twice, the Mountaineers had runs of three consecutive state trips — 1997-99 and 2003-05 — but never advanced past the quarterfinals. And after suffering through a 3-7 season in 2010, Lepper felt like he had hit rock bottom.
He met with a community member, who noticed Lepper — who has led the school to seven combined wrestling titles as that sport’s coach — had strayed from his demanding ways.
“We pride ourselves in being tough,” Lepper said. “To play football here, like in life, you have to make a commitment to it.”
So committed, when it came time to make the two-year league schedule in 2012, Lepper wanted to get Lynden on the schedule.
“Everyone around the table was like, ‘Are you guys nuts?’” Lepper said.
The Mountaineeers lost to Lynden the first year, 55-14, but made a run to the 1A semifinals for the first time in school history. And this season, they had the lead at halftime before losing, 27-20.
“That is when the kids realized we might be OK this year,” Lepper said.
After Mount Baker upended Cascade Christian, 31-28 in overtime, in last week’s semifinals, tailback Izaiha Schwinden said he received congratulatory Facebook messages from alumni and text messages from a couple of Lynden players who were in Eastern Washington playing their semifinal against Ellensburg.
“We are excited for them,” Schwinden said. “It would be cool if Mount Baker took it for 1A, and Lynden took it for 2A.”Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 firstname.lastname@example.org @ManyHatsMilles