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Wednesday, March 12, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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They're Raised On Bulldog Basketball -- Mount Vernon Boys Add To Rich Tradition

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

MOUNT VERNON - Long before he slipped on a green and white jersey, Eric Kruger lived for Tuesdays and Fridays.

In grade school, Kruger would sit in class and daydream about the Mount Vernon High School boys basketball game that night, waiting for another chance to watch his heroes perform at the building up on North Ninth Street.

"They were like gods," Kruger recalled. "I'd just watch the clock and wait for school to get out so I could get to the Bulldogs games as soon as possible."

Kruger sat in awe as Tim Caviezel drained shots from long range. He wanted to be like Mark Hendrickson, who led the Bulldogs to consecutive state titles in 1991 and '92. Kruger followed as their careers took them to college, and in the case of Hendrickson, to the NBA.

Kruger couldn't wait to step on the court when his time came.

"I just assumed that that's what you did," he said. "I was going to be the next Mark Hendrickson."

Kruger's time is now. The senior forward and top-ranked Mount Vernon Bulldogs (25-0) play Decatur (19-7) today at 5 p.m. at the Kingdome as the Class AAA boys state tournament begins.

The names may be different and the school has grown, but one thing hasn't changed. Mount Vernon is still winning big. This season's success has reminded many of the Bulldogs' tradition, which began before Kruger was born.

The coach

While the tradition began with Mount Vernon's first trip to the state tournament in 1961, Mac Fraser has made it complete.

He has made this town of 21,820 as well known for its basketball teams as the acres of tulips that surround it each spring. He arrived in Mount Vernon, 60 miles north of Seattle in the Skagit Valley, in 1986 after a 155-47 record in eight seasons at Class A Stevenson in southwest Washington. Since then, Fraser has done nothing but win, compiling a 231-51 record that has included nine trips to the state tournament and two state titles in 11 seasons.

Fraser's impact was immediate. Mount Vernon qualified for state in each of his first two seasons.

"When I first came here, we had kids much like the ones we have now," he said. "We made basketball important and they responded. They wanted it to be something they could take a lot of pride in. That group got us started."

One of Fraser's groundbreaking victories occurred in his fourth season. In the 1990 state tournament, a Mount Vernon team led by the sophomore Hendrickson won its first two games but faced top-ranked and undefeated Enumclaw in the semifinals. The Bulldogs played their best game of the season and won 79-72. Fraser said the victory was a turning point.

"I think only the team and the coaches, and maybe only a couple of us, believed that we could win that game," he said. "But that was the one win that springboarded the program. That's the game that got us going."

The game was also important for what happened afterward. "We left the locker room and I don't think we got to the vans for at least 45 minutes," Fraser said. "Every person those kids knew was there."

Although the Bulldogs lost 95-63 to Battle Ground in the title game the next day, the foundation had been laid. Mount Vernon won its first boys basketball championship the following year with a 59-52 victory over Battle Ground, then cruised through an undefeated season to a second consecutive championship in 1992 season with a 56-38 over Shorecrest.

Except for the 1994-95 season, the Bulldogs have qualified for the Class AA or AAA state tournament every year since.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The team

Fraser said this season's Bulldogs remind him of the 1991 and '92 championship teams.

"They're focusing on having a good time and getting along, and they're trying their best to be a part of something rather than the main part," he said. "They really want to accomplish something and they're not going to let team problems or selfishness get in the way."

As it did in 1992, Mount Vernon takes an undefeated record into state. And as Hendrickson led the Bulldogs then while wearing the green and white No. 30 jersey, junior Grant Leep wears the number now and fulfills the same role.

Most of the team grew up together as classmates and formed early friendships in elementary school and at Laventure Middle School. Youth basketball brought them together, and similar goals kept them on the same path.

"We're all like brothers on this team, and Mac's like another dad," said senior forward reserve Matt McManus.

Said Leep: "He's not just in it to get the wins, he cares about his players."

But while Kruger, McManus and other Bulldogs such as guards Nic Lind, Scott Collins and Don Holliman grew up on Mount Vernon basketball, life was different for Leep.

The 6-foot-7 forward, regarded as one of the best players in the state, attended Mount Vernon Christian as a youngster and intended to play high-school basketball for the Class B school.

But Leep also wanted to play basketball in college. He knew Fraser, whom he had met as a fifth-grader at a basketball camp, could make him better. He transferred to Laventure near the end of eighth grade.

He calls the decision the best he's ever made.

"If I wouldn't have gone there, I'd be kicking myself right now," Leep said yesterday. "I love winning, and this is just the place for me to be."

Leep had played with most of his Mount Vernon teammates in youth basketball camps and was quickly accepted by his peers. McManus calls Leep "the best shooter I've ever seen."

Says Fraser, "He's a sponge, basketball-wise. He wants to take anything in that will make him better."

The tradition

Fred Lee walked through Mount Vernon's halls as tradition was being established. The 1963 graduate, now president of the Mount Vernon Youth Basketball Club, was a sophomore when he watched the Bulldogs first visit the Big Dance in 1961 and place fifth.

"So many good kids have come through here," he said.

Jeff Scott, the freshman basketball coach, remembers the '61 team, too. His parents pulled him out of school and drove him to Tacoma to watch his heroes play. Scott graduated from Mount Vernon in 1970 and, like Kruger, was raised on Bulldog basketball.

"I remember sitting right up there," he said, pointing toward the southwest corner of the gym, "when Bill Montgomery scored 43 points against Lynden and set a school record. He was my hero back then."

Scott was only 9, but the memories are as vivid as Leep's last-minute slam against Mercer Island last Saturday that broke a bolt off the rim. Scott also was in the stands when Caviezel broke Montgomery's record with 45 points years later.

Lee remembers, too. The longtime AAU coach has witnessed dozens of boys harvest their dreams on basketball courts and has watched young men who could barely touch the rim transformed into powerful dunkers. Perhaps his fondest memory, however, was coaching Hendrickson as a seventh-grader in the AAU program.

"That was a special group," said Lee, referring to Hendrickson and the other middle-school students who would later become state champions. "I didn't know what I had."

An entire wall of Fred Lee's Barber and Styling shop on South First Street is lined with team photos, tournament plaques and autographed pictures from Hendrickson, who visits the shop for haircuts and memories when he's back in town. Lee's favorite photo on the "Wall of Fame" is a picture of the school's first championship team.

"The 1991 championship was special, and there's nothing like the first one," Lee said. "But I can see the anticipation and excitement going through this town again."

Kruger feels it too, but is saddened as time runs out.

"For us seniors, we'll never be able to put on the green and white again," he said.

Kruger doesn't need to worry. The cycle, the tradition, will repeat itself because of people such as Heath Warner.

A sophomore guard on Mount Vernon's junior varsity, Warner waits in the shadows for his time. He has spent hours watching Kruger and Leep on the court and dreams of the days when he'll be among the players out there.

"I've always looked up to them and want to be just like them," he said.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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