The Lynden High School football team is preparing for their first-round matchup against Black Hills in the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s state tournament. The game will be held at Civic Stadium in Bellingham, Washington, at 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 11.
Lynden knocked off top-ranked Tumwater 21-7 to win the 2A state title last season.
“It was probably one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” said senior captain Lane Heeringa.
Heeringa recalled the clock ticking down in the state title game. As he turned to a teammate who was crying with joy, he began crying as well.
“It was kind of an unreal moment,” he said.
Entering this year’s playoffs, Lynden holds the No. 1 ranking in the 2A classification after going 9-0 in the regular season.
Even after coming off a state championship and an undefeated season, head coach Blake VanDalen isn’t underestimating their first-round matchup against Black Hills.
“They are the three-seed in one of the toughest conferences in the state,” VanDalen said. “They have a really dynamic running back and a really physical offensive line, as well as an aggressive defense.”
VanDalen said the team has taken a “nameless, faceless opponent” approach this season while preparing for games. This means the Lions are not getting caught up in who they are playing. Instead, they focus on what their job is on every play of every drive.
That approach is reflected in his players’ mindsets.
“It doesn't matter who you play, you got to play your best game,” Heeringa said.
He said their team had a similar approach last season during their state title run — one game at a time.
VanDalen won his first state title as a head coach last season, but was defensive coordinator on the late Curt Kramme’s Lynden teams that won six 2A state titles in eight years from 2006-2013.
“Everything that we do, and everything I know as a football coach, I’ve learned from him,” said VanDalen, who was on Kramme’s coaching staff for 20 years.
This season, the Lions have allowed just 13.6 points per game while scoring 33.2 points per game.
“Our defensive philosophy has always been ‘bend, don’t break,’” VanDalen said. “You might get yards on us, but we're going to be a really difficult team to score on once the field gets small.”
Offensively, Lynden takes the unique approach of rotating two quarterbacks throughout games.
VanDalen implemented this strategy due to his time as a defensive coordinator, where he learned running quarterbacks are the hardest thing to defend in football.
This strategy allows the quarterbacks, senior captain Kaeden Hermanutz and sophomore Brant Heppner, to save their legs and decrease their chances of injury.
“Otherwise, they don’t last,” VanDalen said. “You watch any coach that has a running quarterback; they don’t [last].”
Heeringa said their team’s two-quarterback rotation is something he has never seen from opposing teams.
“We have a lot of two-way players, but none of our players play full-time two-ways,” VanDalen said. “So, hopefully, in the fourth quarter, when everybody else is tired, we’re not.”
Football isn’t the only sport the Lions have excelled in recent years. The men’s and women’s basketball teams have won multiple state championships within the past five years.
Athletic Director Mike McKee said that Lynden’s organized, well-coached youth sports programs are a factor as to why their school has been successful. Many athletes from their youth programs go on to compete at the high school level.
One example he gave was that Lynden’s youth football teams are not divided by skill level. Instead, the players are split up evenly so the teams can compete fairly against one another.
“We’re not trying to have one superpower team,” McKee said. “We’re trying to balance it to give every kid opportunities.”
McKee said building successful sports programs is like a puzzle. There are many working parts, such as parental involvement, commitment from the kids, community support and great coaching.
“There’s a lot of love,” Heeringa said while expressing gratitude for Lynden. “There’s a lot of community support. … A lot of schools don’t have all that.”
Although the Lions are attempting to repeat as state champions, their program’s goals stretch beyond winning games.
“I don’t think there’s a sport out there that does a better job of preparing kids for life than football,” VanDalen said. “Because guess what? Football is really hard. It’s really hard for kids from day one until the end. You never feel good. You’re never 100%. And you have to get up and go to work anyway, just like the rest of your life.”