LYNDEN - Matt Zigulis presides over a roster vastly different than the Bellingham club he guided to a 2013 state tournament appearance.
Several prolific scorers graduated after propelling the Red Raiders to an 18-2-2 overall record last season, leaving holes that against Lynden Christian on Friday, March 28, Zigulis desperately needed filled.
And while he didn't necessarily get the resounding answer to Bellingham's offensive predicament, a single goal by Keegan Nutt in the 40th minute did just enough to provide the Red Raiders a hard-fought 1-0 win over the Lyncs at Bender Fields in a Northwest Conference matchup.
"We don't have that out-and-out striker," Zigulis said. "We try to be as dynamic as possible without that key center forward, so it's just about finding that right combination. We're getting it. It's coming. You can see it. There were some moments of brilliance."
Nutt, who's just a sophomore, provided all the offense Bellingham would need when he planted a low liner into the right corner of the net past a diving Daulton Lootens. Nutt received the cross from Hayden Anderson just moments before the whistle sounded, signaling the end to the first half.
"It went to my favorite left foot and I put it on target," Nutt said. "It felt good. I'm just glad we got one."
That late lapse on defense was just one of precious few the Lyncs allowed the Red Raiders, who despite outshooting Lynden Christian 14-3, took most from long range.
"It was a battle," Lyncs coach Brent De Ruyter said. "If we clear that ball at the end of the half and we don't allow them to get that service and that score, it's a totally different game."
Lootens, a senior making just his second career start in net for Lynden Christian, looked the part, coming up with several key saves that kept the contest close. None of his 13 saves were more important than the one he made in the 28th minute off a shot from Jack Lewis-Clark. Lewis-Clark sunk a shot low from the top of the box, and Lootens made a one-handed stab to prevent the ball from getting into the left corner of the net, maintaining the tie.
"For a senior rookie, he's doing a great job," De Ruyter said. "He's got great hands. He's a basketball player, so he understands angles and he understands the flight of the ball."
Up until Nutt's shot from the left corner of the box, that was Bellingham's most worth-while attempt as a stingy Lyncs' defense was able to keep the Red Raiders at arm's length.
The pressure and physicality only intensified in the later stages of the second half as Bellingham sought to add an insurance goal, and Lynden Christian fought to tie it up.
In the Red Raiders' case, not having that defined go-to scorer at this point in the season showed when Bellingham tried to stage attempt after attempt on the Lyncs' tough-minded backline.
"We need to find that dagger, if you will - that final ball into the back of the net," Zigulis said. "It's kind of been our weakness so far going forward. We're making chances. We're creating chances. We're working hard, but it's about putting the ball in the net."
Lewis-Clark had a one-on-one with Lootens in the 61st minute, sending the ball high over the crossbar, and Carlos Velasco had an equally-as-good look three minutes later that Lootens corralled again.
Lynden Christian staged one last run at Bellingham in the final 10 minutes, bringing more players forward to try to create better attacks. It nearly worked in one instance when a cross made its way into the middle of the box but was cleared by a Bellingham defender.
"Sloppy win, but it counts," Nutt said. "Three points for the season, and we need it."
Reach Alex Bigelow at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-715-2238. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for other Whatcom County sports updates.
BELLINGHAM 1, LYNDEN CHRISTIAN 0
Goal: Keegan Nutt (Bellingham); Assist: Hayden Anderson; Time: 40:00. Shots on goal: Bellingham: 14; Lynden Christian: 3; Saves (goalies); Bellingham: Logan Schilder 2; Lynden Christian: Daulton Lootens 14.