Earlier this year, Mountain Crest coach Mark Wootton was talking to a friend prior to a kickoff, and in the process he pointed out some of the Mustangs' top players.

Quarterback Brady Zimmerman, running back Brady Wootton and wide receivers/defensive backs Ryan Weese and Cameron Webb were among the players he highlighted. When he got to linebacker Jason Barker, coach Wootton's friend interrupted and said, "No way. That kid's a linebacker?"

He just couldn't believe that a 5-foot-5, 150-pound kid could actually be an effective linebacker.

Sure enough, during the course of the game Wootton's friend paid particular attention to Barker, and all he did was make play after play.

"He's very determined, and he's strong," said Wootton. "Even though he's small, he's kind of fearless. He loves to hit. He's on our kickoff team, and he's caused a lot of fumbles on kickoffs."

Barker is one of three unheralded Mountain Crest linebackers who've played a huge role in getting the Mustangs to this Friday's 4A state championship game against Highland.

Along with Barker, Preston Schwab and Phillip Rutledge forced a trio of linebackers who may be undersized, but who more than make up for it with strength, decent speed and intelligence.

Wootton likes to point out that all three linebackers squat over 400 pounds, and they're also all wrestlers.

At 175 pounds, Schwab doesn't exactly have overwhelming size for a linebacker, but his real strength is actually his understanding of the game.

"We teach our linebackers to read lineman," said Wootton. "If you get a kid who can be good at that, they can make a lot of plays. That's probably Preston's biggest strength — he fills a lot of holes."

Of the three, Rutledge is Mountain Crest's premiere playmaker. He has several interception and fumble recoveries to his credit this year, and two of those interceptions he returned for touchdowns. The 4A wrestling champ at 171 pounds last year is also the Mustangs' kicker.

"Every time we need a big play, he seems to come up with one," said Wootton.

All three will need to come up with big plays this Friday against Highland's option offense.

When these teams met in Week 1, Mountain Crest successfully bottled up Highland's ground attack in the 13-9 win, but the Rams' offense is improved 10-fold since that game.

If the Mustangs are going to duplicate that victory, Wootton says its absolutely critical that his linebackers play a role stuffing the run up the middle, but then helping contain on the wings as well.

Wootton acknowledges that it won't be an easy task for his undersized linebackers against a very big Highland offensive line. Nonetheless, they've been making big plays all year, and he's confident the three seniors can do it one last time.

E-mail: jedward@desnews.com