Bellingham may be the "City of Subdued Excitement," but let's face it, there hasn't been a whole lot in town to get enthusiastic about on Friday nights during the fall in quite some time.
It's probably overstating the obvious, but when it comes to football, the strength of Whatcom County most definitely resides outside Bellingham city limits.
"In Lynden, football matters," Squalicum coach Reed Richardson said. "In Ferndale, it matters. Baker, it matters. At Squalicum, it matters, and at the other Bellingham schools, it matters, but it's different."
And the difference is evident in the success the programs have seen on the field.
While traditional powers Ferndale, Lummi, Lynden and Meridian and even Blaine, Lynden Christian, Mount Baker and Nooksack Valley have all tasted their share of postseason prosperity both in recent years and since the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association began overseeing high school football in the state in 1973, the three city schools have been left out in the cold for the most part when the calendar flips to November.
Bellingham is the only city school to advance to the state playoffs since Y2K, and that was only on a technicality, when Archbishop Murphy was forced to forfeit a 28-6 district playoff victory over the Red Raiders in 2007 due to using a player that was ineligible for a paperwork mix-up following the early-season death of the Wildcats' head coach.
Bellingham did make the most of the opportunity, though, beating Mark Morris 23-13 at Everett in the first round of the Class 2A State Playoffs, before losing to eventual state champion Prosser 35-6 in the quarterfinals. But that win over the Monarchs represents one of only six state playoff wins by a Bellingham city school and came in one of only eight playoff appearances by a city school.
The seven county schools, by comparison, have qualified for the playoffs a total of 112 times and have logged 147 victories, including 14 in state title games.
It's not just in the postseason, where city schools haven't measured up compared to the county. In regular season games between a city school and a county school, the county has won 72 of 86 meetings (83.7 percent) since the Northwest Conference was formed in 2006. Squalicum, which is seeking its first state playoff appearance, is the best of the city trio with a 6-22 record (21.4 percent) against county schools.
"Only 11 guys can be on the field," said Bellingham coach Steve Wilson, who also coached Squalicum its first eight years. "It doesn't matter if Ferndale has 100 and some-odd guys out for the team, you still can only play 11 on the field. It's just a matter of if those 11 guys will stand up and be just as tough as the 11 guys opposing them. Just because they're county kids and we're city kids, it doesn't matter; it's still 11 vs. 11."
So what are the reasons for the discrepancies, then?
Numbers actually are a big, big key for any football team.
Ferndale and Lynden routinely draw 100-plus to fill out their varsity, junior varsity and freshman squads, while the county's 1A schools draw respectable numbers for their enrollment size.
Only Squalicum is in that neighborhood this season, though Sehome has come a long way in the past four years, and Bellingham saw an increase in turnout in this, Wilson's second year leading the program.
"Part of the problem with Bellingham is there is so much to do," Richardson said. "There's so many different options. Kids can play so many different sports. My own son is playing basketball and lacrosse - he does a lot of different things. There's that draw."
Just look at the success the three city high schools had in boys' cross country last year, finishing first, second and third at the 2A State Championships. While city cross country programs seem to have plenty of strong athletes to develop and chose from, those in the county often struggle to fill out a full varsity seven.
All three city schools also have successful boys' tennis programs in the fall, while only Lynden and Ferndale offer those sports in the county, and club soccer is offered for boys throughout the year in Bellingham.
"It's not horrible for kids," Richardson said. "I'm happy to raise my kids in Bellingham, because of all these options. It can take away from football, but it is good for kids."
Speaking of kids, the city's youth football program also is making efforts to help the city high schools catch up to the rest of the county on the gridiron.
"We've had some real positive changes in our youth football program here recently," said Bob Norvell, who is in his second season leading Sehome. "In football this year, our eighth grade fall football had a green and a red team. We want to have a green, red and blue team. That's our goal. These other communities (in the county), they have two eighth-grade teams and one high school. We have two eighth-grade teams and three high schools. I think that just puts us behind the eight ball."
Richardson, who has actually coached his son's team with the Boys and Girls Club program, said not only are the number of youth football teams in the city increasing, but so is the quality of instruction that the youth are receiving.
"I think right now, we have some really good youth coaches in the city of Bellingham that are trying to make it possible for as many kids as possible to have fun and want to play football," Richardson said. "I don't feel like the youth coaches right now are guys that are trying to win the Little League World Series. It may have been that way in the past, and all that did was create one team for 20 kids. When those kids went to high school, six would go to Squalicum, six would go to Bellingham and eight would go to Sehome, and that just doesn't work.
"So if we can get 50, 60 kids playing youth football and loving it at the 9-10 age and the 11-12 age, then you're going to get a whole influx of kids, and that's the goal - to get as many kids as we can that love playing football."
And in a chicken-or-the-egg sort of way, it may be the high school teams' responsibility to help fill those youth program rosters.
"I think winning is going to be the thing that turns it all around," Norvell said. "When Jake Locker was winning at Ferndale, they had 12 third-grade flag teams, because kids were excited. We've got to get exciting. I think the three of us in town are making our offenses exciting. People are going to want to watch football in Bellingham."
Sehome, which is seeking its first trip to the state playoffs since 1999, definitely seems to be on the upswing, as the Mariners' four wins in 2012 matched their season high since 2006, and they were competitive in five of their six losses. A big, strong trio of junior interior linemen and a couple of exciting playmakers has Sehome thinking it can do even more this fall.
"We need a big commitment to the weight room here at Sehome," Norvell said. "That's what we're working on. Guys come and realize it's healthy and it's fun. We're not just out here banging our heads against the wall - we're making football safe, exciting and fun. I think that's where Sehome is headed."
Bellingham also seems to be headed in the right direction, as the Red Raiders attempt to improve upon a one-win campaign in 2012. Like Sehome, they are excited about their offensive line and have a sophomore quarterback Wilson said could be something special before he is done. Bellingham's primary focus this year is getting better at stopping the run defensively, after allowing 7.2 yards per carry last year, and Wilson believes that starts with the right mentality.
"Just watching the last few years, it's been obvious the city kids haven't been as tough as the county kids," Wilson said. "You don't want to label them or anything, but in order to make that step up, your 11 guys have got to be just as tough as those county guys."
Of the three city schools, Squalicum seems to be in best position to not only end the city's state playoff drought, but also notch its first appearance in the round of 16. The Storm return a wealth of talented skill position players that have on-the-job training the past two years and helped the program finish second in the NWC 2A standings and advance to the district playoffs last season.
"I think right now, our coaches in Bellingham are just awesome guys," said Richardson, who is entering his eighth year leading the Storm. "Bob and Steve are quality, quality people, and they're fun to play against. I think that's good. When you get your numbers up, you start establishing stronger programs, and when you start winning, it kind of feeds off that. I think we're all moving in the right direction."
A comparison of the three Bellingham city schools' success in football as compared to the seven other schools in the county during the Northwest Conference era (since 2006):
|Record vs. county teams||3-24||5-26||6-22||14-72||-|
|State playoff appearances||3||5||0||8||112 (16.0)|
|State playoff victories||4||2||0||6||147 (21.0)|
|State semifinal appearances||1||0||0||1||50 (7.1)|
|State final appearances||0||0||0||0||25 (3.6)|
|State championships||0||0||0||0||14 (2.0)|
Reach Sports Editor David Rasbach at 360-715-2271 or email@example.com .