The margin of victory continues to lessen as the competition in the Northwest Conference grows more and more even.
Or at least that's been the case for the high school boys' swimming season.
Four schools - Anacortes, Bellingham, Squalicum and Sehome - are virtually all parallel to one another. The Storm sit atop the conference with a 5-0 record, trailed by the Mariners (4-0), Seahawks (3-1) and Red Raiders (1-3), but the overall level of parity this year is unlike that of recent history.
Nobody knows that reality better than the Red Raiders, who have twice seen victory slip from their grasp in the waning moments of a meet. Against Squalicum on Dec. 10, the Storm pulled out a 94-92 win. Déjà vu seemed to rear its head again when Sehome took the final 400 freestyle relay against Bellingham on Jan. 9, to win 93-92.
Two losses by a combined three points left a bitter taste in the mouth of Bellingham swimmer Martin Sloley.
"I was frustrated," said Sloley in a phone interview of the loss to the Mariners. "I felt like I was really pumped up, then let down. All the air came out from under us and we fell on the floor. It hurt a little. ... I don't like to lose."
The Red Raiders' performance against perennial-power Sehome was a stinging loss, Sloley said, but taking into account that over the past four seasons the Mariners had defeated Bellingham by an average of 94.5 points per meet, a new perspective begins to form.
A perspective Bellingham's coach, Jeff Anderson, prefers.
"It would have been our biggest victory in recent history," Anderson said. "You kind of relish those. A team that has clobbered you for many, many years, and all of the sudden you practically have them. ... They wanted to get them."
The difference between winning and losing has been so microscopic that Squalicum's 94-92 win over Bellingham to start the season hinged on a win by .07 seconds in the 200 medley relay.
"These are down to tenths of seconds," Anderson said. "Squalicum beat our medley relay by .07 seconds. Had we won that medley relay by .07 seconds, we would've won that meet. It would have been the other way around."
The Storm's coach, Randy Elsner, offered little remorse for their cross-town competitors.
"Better us than them," he said.
SQUALICUM ON THE RISE
The Storm have arrived on the landscape of boys' swimming in the NWC, and it's doing it by having a propensity for winning close meets.
Against Anacortes on Thursday, Jan. 16, Squalicum edged the previously-unbeaten Seahawks 94-92 thanks to a 1-2-3 finish in the 100 freestyle by Neall Koetje, Lucas Roberts and Bobby Bruce, in that order.
Elsner said then that he didn't expect that to happen. When he believes a particular meet will be close, he mocks out the results beforehand to see how the scores might fall, and against Anacortes, he believed either the Seahawks would win 98-88, or Squalicum would win 98-88.
Either way, he knew it was going to be close. He just didn't think it come down to two points.
"I want to see close races because that's the kind of sport that people get better if you're racing better competition," Elsner said. "When you see these other teams so close, they're actually making my guys better. I know coming out of this they are going to get better racing good teams."
The Mariners don't have a single senior. That fact isn't lost on any of the other teams in the NWC, either, since the Mariners have long sat atop the conference as the team to beat.
Since the 2008-09 season, Sehome is 37-0 in dual meets. The Mariners over that same span have beaten teams by an average of 74.75 points per meet, but this year's number tells of a pack catching up to the leader.
The Mariners are holding a plus-38.6 points margin in their three meets this season - the previous low over the past six seasons had been 69.9 in the 08-09 season.
"This entire season has just been very interesting in that everything is so close," Sehome sophomore Colin Hakeman said in a phone interview. "It means that you really go into the week not knowing which way the meets are going to go. It's exciting. Too much predictability gets old."
The road to yet another NWC championship will be long for Sehome. The Mariners end their regular season against Squalicum and then Anacortes on Jan. 28 and Jan. 30, respectively.
"When we get down inside 10 points, that's just a matter of you (having) two completely even teams with one or two swims making the difference in the meet," Sehome coach Don Helling said. "That's huge. It's fun, but it's also nerve racking."
Reach Alex Bigelow at email@example.com or call 360-715-2238. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for other Whatcom County sports updates.