When North Kitsap High School's soccer team goes through warmups Wednesday evening, May 15, before facing Bellingham during the first round of the Class 2A State Tournament, they'll look across the field and see keeper Auden Schilder's intimidating 6-foot-4 presence in goal.
Starting defensemen Hunter Hadfield, Lars Botterill, Blake Langei and Noah Silverman, whom coach Matt Zigulis billed as "more finesse" defenders, are often overlooked, especially with a soon-to-be Division I keeper behind them.
Even Hadfield admits Bellingham's defense wouldn't be the same without Schilder.
"He is definitely one of the best in the state," said the junior center back in a phone interview.
Make no mistake, though, Bellingham's back four are as much responsible for the Red Raiders' 0.52 goals allowed per game average and 12 shutouts in 19 matches this season as Schilder.
And the way they've meshed together and performed is arguably as impressive as a Schilder game-changing save.
"I know that our team has one of the smallest defenses in the league, and that's why it's been surprising we have been doing so well," Hadfield said. "We communicate so well together, and Lars and I in the center do a pretty good job organizing the whole team. I think that's one of the reasons we are so successful."
All four back line members are new to their varsity spots, and each brings unique background that's helped mold the group into the best defense in the Northwest Conference.
Hadfield and Botterill started last year, but the two played on opposite ends of graduated defenders Will Lewis and Sam Frakes. Now in the middle, both work cohesively next to each other.
"I'm not sure about Lars, but in previous years I have played a center defensive position," Hadfield said. "I don't know what it is, but I just feel like that is where I'm supposed to be. I can command and use my voice to direct everyone."
Hadfield and Botterill complement each other well, Zigulis said.
"They are both strong players and have had good attitudes about (the move inside)," said the Red Raiders coach. "Lars is more aggressive, and Hunter will support and just hold them. They have been consistent and have a lot of communication and work with Auden. They have done a good job."
Zigulis knew what the kind of defenders his two center backs were coming into the year, but Langei and Silverman have played beyond expectation.
Langei, despite his roughly 5-foot-5 frame, has shown no sign of intimidation playing for the Northwest Conference champions, Zigulis said. The Red Raiders coach pointed to his older brother for the reason why.
"He's stepping in and has a lot of confidence, not arrogance," Zigulis said of Langei. "He knows he is a good player, and his brother (Dylan Langei) was on the team that won state a few years ago. I'm sure his big brother's legacy has been passed down to him and not a lot is going to change the type of person he is."
Silverman, at 5-foot-6, is arguably Bellingham's most physical defender, and he's used to preventing scores. Silverman plays safety on the Red Raiders football team.
His football background extends to his play on the soccer field, Zigulis and Hadfield said.
"I think even how he goes for headers and how he tackles and how he goes in hard into tackles, as well," said Zigulis of how Silverman's football traits translate. "When both center backs have been beat, he's saved breakaways and comes in from the side with the perfect tackle."
Silverman is as enforcer-like as the Red Raiders' defense gets.
Bellingham's back four have traditionally been big, strong powerful players, Zigulis said. The 2013 Red Raiders defense isn't. Even better, they can maneuver with the ball at their feet, which helps control possession and opens up the field with thanks to their ability to swing the ball from side to side.
"Watching other teams, a lot of defenses will just kind of boot it up," Hadfield said. "They don't want the ball to go back, so they'll take one touch and boot it. We can come in and get it more at our feet. That way we can really slow the game down."
Bellingham's strength this year has been ball possession, spearheaded by Brad Dale, Conlon Kiffney and Emile Diffley. Defenders such as Hadfield, Botterill, Langei and Silverman, whom Zigulis called true "soccer players," add to the Red Raiders' ball-control game.
With the help of Schilder, Bellingham's defense has shut out eight of its last 10 opponents. The Red Raiders gave up two goals during their Class 2A Northwest Conference title game loss against Archbishop Murphy, which was Bellingham's first loss.
Both goals occurred on set pieces, and Hadfield and Langei, who've been battling injury and illness, were inactive. Bellingham plans to have its full back line in-tact by Wednesday's 6 p.m. kickoff in Poulsbo, though.
"We know we are a strong line when we're all healthy," Hadfield said. "If we can stay healthy, we can keep things going."
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862.
Bellingham at North Kitsap
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 15
Site: North Kitsap High School, Poulsbo
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.