BELLINGHAM -- Huddled in packs at the center of the field in Bellingham's Civic Stadium on Saturday night, members of the La Center football team embraced one another following the final whistle.
La Center had just faced Mount Baker and for the second connective season, the Mountaineers took the Wildcats down in the 1A state quarterfinals.
This time, it was a 63-33 thrashing for the Mountaineers, led by senior running back Izaiha Schwinden. The speedy back rushed for 143 yards and five touchdowns, while adding 72 receiving yards and two more scores.
That all didn't matter to La Center coach John Lambert, though. What he was focused on following his team's season-ending defeat was the spirit and guts his guys showed even when things got tough in the second half.
The Wildcats were down by over 20 points for the majority of the final 24 minutes, but never stopped battling.
"They left it all out on the field and the thing is, we have such a great group of seniors," Lambert said. "I'm just so proud of how they finished strong. We could have put our heads down and quit, but we didn't. That says a lot about our guys and the character we have. I love these guys like my own sons."
La Center saw 14 seniors don a Wildcat uniform for the last time on Saturday evening. This included standout running back Conner Fulton, who paved the way for the team offensively. The 5-11, 185-pounder finished the night with 107 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries.
In the first half alone, Fulton had 15 carries for 79 yards and three touchdowns.
One of those touchdown rushes included a one-yard run with 1:27 left in the first half, to trim Mount Baker's lead to 21-19. The Mountaineers quickly countered on a 42-yard pass from quarterback Andrew Zender to Schwinden, though, which gave Mount Baker a 29-19 advantage going into the break.
"With Conner, he was a lineman his first two years and wasn't in great shape, but he built himself through weight training, hard work and commitment," Lambert said. "He's one of the best backs in the state at our level. It's been great to see the success he's had this season."
La Center quarterback Wyatt Aguirre, a junior, had 89 rushing yards and 33 passing yards. Aguirre did have a costly interception in the third quarter, though. Jacob Livingston had only two carries on the night, but one of them went for a one-yard touchdown run in the second half.
As for Mount Baker, quarterback Andrew Zender tossed for 106 yards and two touchdowns, while adding 53 yards on the ground on 13 rushes. Running back Liam Short also gave Wildcat defenders problems, rushing for 93 yards and a touchdown.
"They just have a lot of weapons and what we tried to do to stop them obviously didn't work," Lambert said. "They played really well tonight and we weren't able to slow them down like we thought we would. It wasn't for a lack of effort, though.
"They're a really special team. I was impressed with how they got after it and their Schwinden kid is really fast. I was hoping he was a senior last year, but he was only a junior. They're an impressive group and I expect great things from them in the next two games."
With the loss, the Wildcats finished the season with a record of 11-1, while Mount Baker will play Cascade Christian in the 1A semifinals next weekend.
MOUNT BAKER 63, LA CENTER 33
La Center 6 13 0 14--33
Mount Baker 14 15 24 20--63
MB -- Hunter Gates 8 pass from Andrew Zender (Alex Tyska kick)
LC -- Conner Fulton 2 run (kick blocked)
MB -- Izaiha Schwinden 2 run (Tyka kick)
LC -- Fulton 12 run (run failed)
MB -- Schwinden 2 run (Tyska kick)
LC -- Fulton 1 run (Conner Wonderly kick)
MB -- Schwinden 42 pass from Zender (Tyska kick)
MB -- Schwinden 1 run (Tyska kick)
MB -- Schwinden 28 run (Tyska kick)
MB -- Schwinden 16 pass from Zender (kick blocked)
LC -- Jacob Livingston 1 run (Wonderly pass from Wyatt Aguirre)
MB -- Schwinden 4 run (Tyska kick)
MB -- Liam Short 9 run (Tyska kick)
LC -- Fulton 4 run (run failed)
RUSHING -- La Center: Conner Fulton 22-107, Wyatt Aguirre 14-89, Jacob Livingston 2-2, Matt Braaten 1-15, Conner Wonderly 5-29, Trevor Roberson 1-1. Mount Baker: Izaiah Schwinden 18-143, Liam Short 13-93, Andrew Zender 13-93, Joey Walton 2-18, Travis Lindsey 1-11, Joey Walton 1-1.
PASSING -- La Center: Wyatt Aguirre 5-11-1-33. Mount Baker: Andrew Zender 6-10-0-106.
RECEIVING -- La Center: Matt Braaten 3-19, Conner Wonderly 2-14. Mount Baker: Izaiha Schwinden 3-72, Hunter Gates 1-8, Joey Walton 1-18, Travis Lindsey 1-8.