When prep soccer standout Conlon Kiffney told Brad Dale before this school year he might be leaving Sehome and start attending Bellingham High, Dale dismissed it. He'd already heard that before.
The Red Raiders soccer captain was let down two years ago after thinking he might play with his good friend and longtime Whatcom Rangers teammate in the high school ranks.
"He had talked about coming to Bellingham before our junior year," Dale said of Kiffney in a phone interview. "It didn't happen. When he talked about it again, I didn't really believe him because I didn't want to get my hopes up again. When he told me at (Whatcom Rangers) soccer practice he had gotten a house in the Bellingham School District, most of all I was excited I'd have him on my team one last time."
Rangers club soccer is a nine-month program. The season ends once high school soccer starts. Dale thought when club ended his time playing with Kiffney would end, too.
But sure enough, Kiffney swapped Sehome green and gold for Bellingham red and white and is making quite the impact.
"Brad Dale had texted me over the summer, and he told me, 'Hey, Conlon's transferring to Bellingham,'" Red Raiders coach Matt Zigulis said in a phone interview. "My first thought was he'd have to sit out a year, but he moved so he was able to play right away."
Success and team chemistry are synonymous in any team sport. Bellingham reached the Class 2A State Tournament quarterfinals last year, and throwing a new teammate into an already successful equation can be a gamble.
Not in this case. Success was more of a sure bet, especially in Dale's opinion.
"We've had strong chemistry with the whole team," the Bellingham senior said. "I think going into the season, I had more confidence (for the team) than a lot of the guys."
Really, there was no reason to worry about Kiffney's adjustment with the Red Raiders. Dale's and Kiffney's chemistry has been six seasons in the making. The pair, as well as All-Northwest Conference Bellingham goalkeeper Auden Schilder, have played club together since their days in U-13. Even Emile Diffley, who Dale said has been just as vital to Bellingham's attack as Kiffney and himself, played Rangers last year.
Zigulis also knew how well Dale and Kiffney play together. The Red Raiders coach acted as an assistant on their U-13 team when Zigulis was a sophomore defender on the Western Washington University men's soccer team.
How has all that time sharing the same soccer field paid off?
About as well as Dale imagined it prior to the season. Bellingham (10-0-1, 6-0-1 NWC) has compiled six straight wins and remains the only unbeaten overall in the NWC.
That success, in large part, is a result of Dale's increased confidence and play-making abilities matched with Kiffney's new attacking role in Zigulis' formation.
Dale recorded eight goals and eight assists last year. Kiffney, playing a more defensive-midfield role with Sehome, scored one goal and had one assist.
A new year for Dale and a new setting for Kiffney has seemingly brought the best out of each other.
Dale has team highs of nine goals and eight assists, while Kiffney has scored eight times and has six assists, and Bellingham still has five regular-season matches left.
"Their chemistry has been going on since they were kids," Zigulis said. "I think that is a big part of their success. When you've been competing and playing with the same person, you start to get a deeper understanding of them and how they play."
All-NWC forward Arie Vanderstaay shouldered much of Bellingham's scoring load last year. Zigulis said Dale, who shares captain status with Schilder, has increased his level of play because he's owned his leadership position, noting "there's something about that captain arm band alone that gives you super powers."
Zigulis said Kiffney is so talented he can play anywhere on the field. He realized how strong of an attacking player Kiffney is, though, while he coached the U-13 team years ago.
"Right away I got paper and started drawing up some things we could do with our formation," said the Bellingham coach when he learned he'd be coaching Kiffney again.
Zigulis came up with a forward-mid hybrid position for Kiffney, where he can use his athletic ability and soccer intelligence to score and help orchestrate Bellingham's attack.
"For Sehome, I played a defensive-center mid," Kiffney explained in a phone interview. "This year, I'm more of a floating forward, and I like it a lot more. I like to play in space. When I'm up top, I like being able to take on a person and shoot."
Both Dale and Kiffney agreed playing together has been great. Not having to play against each other has been arguably just as good.
"It's pretty frustrating playing against him," Kiffney said of his time matched against Dale at Sehome. "He is very strong on the ball, and it is hard to knock him off. He reads the game well and understands where (the ball) is going to be played. Offensively, he has a really good shot from long distance."
"He does not give up on a ball," said Dale of Kiffney's play. "We were on each other most of the game last year. He is really hard to knock off the ball. He's playing forward this year, but he is one of the best defenders in the league. He really knows the game well, and his body positioning makes it tough to get by him. He is frustrating to play against for sure."
But these days Dale and Kiffney are spending more time figuring how to keep winning together than how to avoid one another.
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862.
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.