BELLINGHAM -- Squalicum's always proud basketball fans may not be shouting, "He's a freshman, he's a freshman," to visitors much longer.
After all, when a freshman plays more like a senior, the students may have to come up with something a bit more creative.
However, the fans may be cheering, "You got swatted," more than a few times this season when freshman point guard Damek Mitchell literally leaps into the path of a key late shot, the way he did in the host Storm's thrilling 56-52 non-league victory over Bellingham.
The matchup of Class 2A Northwest Conference rivals on Tuesday, Dec. 17, turned into a memorable varsity debut for the quick 5-foot-8 Mitchell, who sat out the Storm's first three games while recovering from a knee problem.
Mitchell made his first two shots from the field, the first a 3-pointer to give the Storm a 13-10 lead. Except for a 44-all tie in the fourth quarter, Squalicum (3-1) led the rest of the way after falling behind 8-0 in the opening moments.
"I was a little nervous at first, but wow, were my teammates ever helpful in telling me what to do, and in motivating me and encouraging me," said Mitchell, who finished with a team-high 16 points on 6 for 11 shooting. "Everything went so fast."
Mitchell wasn't kidding. Seniors Blake Youtsey, Ben Garcia and Luke Weber and junior Clark Hazlett took turns working well with the freshman, who was an AAU youth standout in recent years.
Those four teammates cheered like crazy when Mitchell made a leaping block with 24.6 seconds to go and the Storm up 55-48 after two free throws by Youtsey, who finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
"When he learns the system, Damek will be even better," said longtime Squalicum coach Dave Dickson, who has coached some of the state's best point guards. "He's a very gifted player with a lot of room for improvement. He's a playmaker, and I've never seen Damek play selfishly."
Mitchell fit well with his older teammates, all of whom made key plays in the second half to fend off fast-paced efforts by Bellingham seniors Kailen Hayes (18 points) and Tristan Hurley (14), who showed why the Red Raiders are off to a 4-2 start in Brad McKay's first season as boys' head coach.
After Mitchell's steal and layup gave the Storm a 26-18 lead late in the first half, Hayes and Hurley applied steady pressure with their quickness and shooting, eventually producing the 44-all tie with 5:38 remaining.
At that point, Squalicum's valuable 6-6 senior reserve post Remington Wilcox scored off a rebound. The Storm led the rest way of the way as Mitchell scored on a scoop-shot follow and Garcia hit a pair of free throws and a key 3-pointer with 1:45 left for a 55-48 lead.
Hazlett, who took only one shot in the first half but played his usual determined defense, took advantage of effective passing from Mitchell, Youtsey and Garcia to go 4 for 4 for 8 points in the third quarter.
"I'm just getting over a cold and my teammates really lifted me up in the third quarter," said Hazlett, who was especially thrilled to see his buddy Mitchell perform so well.
The Raiders made it interesting, to say the least, when senior reserve Ryan Fox, who chipped in with eight points, hit a pair of free throws with 11.2 seconds left. After a Storm turnover, sophomore guard Kyle Hofstetter scored on a rebound with 4.9 seconds remaining, cutting Squalicum's lead to 55-53.
Then it was Weber's turn to contribute a free throw with 3.6 seconds left, leaving the Raiders with no choice but to take a long 3-point attempt as the game ended. Weber also chipped in with a momentum-maintaining 3-pointer for a 20-14 second-quarter advantage.
Hayes continued to show Bellingham fans that he should give them more than their money's worth of points and effort. He shot 7 for 13 from the field, grabbed eight rebounds and displayed several outstanding moves with sheer quickness.
Hurley was pure hustle all the way, hitting a pair of 3s in the third quarter to keep Bellingham in the fray.
Jakob Chamberlin, a 6-3 sophomore post called up from the junior varsity, showed a willingness to work hard for the Raiders.
Both Squalicum and Bellingham barely missed the Northwest District Tournament last season, and this intense game showed they seem to have the hard-nosed attitude and the talent to make a better run for this year's districts.
Bellingham plays its first NWC game on Thursday, Dec. 19, at Lynden. Squalicum's league opener will be at Burlington-Edison on Friday, Dec. 20.
At least for one more game, Squalicum's fans are likely to keep yelling, "He's a freshman." The fans will be hard-pressed to become as creative as quickly has Mitchell has on the varsity level.
SQUALICUM 56, BELLINGHAM 52
Bellingham 10 13 17 12 -- 52 Squalicum 15 12 17 12 -- 56 Bellingham: Kailan Hayes 18, Tristan Hurley 14, Amari Franklin 2, Dante Check 2, Kyle Hofstetter 5, Ryan Fox 8, Jakob Chamberlin 2, Turner Guy 1, Eddie Haywood 0, Kieren Lewis 0. Team totals: 19-51 11-19 52. Squalicum: Blake Youtsey 13, Clark Hazlett 8, Luke Weber 5, Josh Vail 0, Ben Garcia 9, Damek Mitchell 16, Remington Wilcox 4, Creighton Kaui 1. Team totals: 19-45 12-21 56. 3-ptg: Bellingham: Hurley 2, Hayes 1; Squalicum: Mitchell 2, Youtsey 2, Weber 1. Rebounds: Squalicum 35 (Youtsey 10); Bellingham 30 (Hayes 8). Assists: Bellingham 8 (Hayes 3); Squalicum 10 (Mitchell 3). Fouls: Bellingham 19, Squalicum 20 (Youtsey fouled out).
Reach ANDREW LANG at firstname.lastname@example.org or call ext. 862.