With the exception of some very talented teams at Sehome High School in recent years, the volleyball landscape at the city schools in Bellingham hasn’t been particularly fruitful.
Before this season, Squalicum qualified for the state tournament only once, placing seventh in 2013, and Bellingham hadn’t visited state since 1991.
But this year, the Storm and Red Raiders – strangers to extended postseason runs – join Whatcom County state tournament veterans Ferndale and two-time defending state champion Lynden Christian in qualifying for their respective Sweet 16s.
Squalicum’s performance is particularly impressive considering this is the Storm’s first season since moving up to Class 3A. A year after finishing 8-9 overall and 7-5 in league play, the Storm improved to 14-3 and 11-2.
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Joe Amaral, in his second year as coach, said the Storm has responded admirably to the change, winning its last nine regular-season matches and prevailing in their first Class 3A Northwest District Tournament match against Stanwood in thrilling fashion, coming back from an 8-1 deficit in the final set.
“There’s a lot of trust on this team,” said Amaral, who added his team had great commitment during summer practice and never waned from it this season.
While the Storm lost to Arlington in four sets in the district title match, Amaral said the outcome wasn’t necessarily a negative.
“They always respond after a bad showing,” he said. “I tell them it’s a blessing in disguise, losing that one, because we will respond with our first match at state, and I’m looking forward to that.”
Gwen Schorr, one of five seniors on the team, said the whole season has been a highlight, especially the time spent growing close with teammates. Schorr said the players even had a Halloween practice where they dressed up in costumes.
Although it’s the first time at state for everyone involved, Schorr said the team is ready to make its mark.
“We’re all going to work hard (and) do our best,” she said. “We’re not going to try to let the big stage affect us at all.”
Bellingham also saw great improvement this season, especially after a 7-7 regular season. The Red Raiders entered the 2A Northwest District Tournament as the No. 7 seed but stormed through Blaine (3-0), Burlington-Edison (3-2) and Liberty (3-1) to reach the district title match and clinch only their second trip to state since 1977. In 1991, Bellingham finished third in the district tournament.
Bellingham finished runner-up to Washington for the 3A state title in 1977. Jeanne Dorr, who coached that team, talked to this year’s squad while it prepared to leave for Lacey during Wednesday’s practice.
Jessica King, in her second year as coach, said the Red Raiders have been buoyed by consistency, perseverance and the belief they can win.
“They’re very excited. They don’t really know what to expect, so it’s kind of whatever they make (of) it,” King said, adding her roster is deep.
Bellingham has four seniors, including libero Sophia Lawrence.
Lawrence said the seniors have played together for about eight years. The team, she said, has been really focused on improving its communication.
“We know that bonding is important, and that chemistry is just as important as skill,” she said.
Consequently, Lawrence thinks Bellingham could be a dark horse for a state title.
“I think we’re going to surprise everyone, just like we did at districts,” she said. “We all have a passion, and I think … we’re going to really fight at state.”
Whatcom County volleyball teams at state
First-round matchups Friday
At Toyota Center, Kennewick
▪ Ferndale vs. Mercer Island, 11:30 a.m.
▪ Squalicum vs. Roosevelt, 11:30 a.m.
At Saint Martin’s University, Lacey
▪ Bellingham vs. Ridgefield, 1 p.m.
At Yakima Valley SunDome
▪ Lynden Christian vs. Castle Rock, 8 a.m.