High School Sports

Bellingham emerging as contender

In the not-too-distant past, Bellingham’s volleyball program was struggling at the bottom of the Northwest Conference.

Wins were an uncommon entity, the Red Raiders suffering an 0-15 season in 2007, improving to 1-13 in ’08 and ’09 before again being reacquainted with a winless 2010 season.

As freshmen, Kim Bjorklund’s current senior class — Olivia Bjorklund, Anna Zeegers and Fiona Donovan — went 2-12. Olivia vividly remembers the defeated culture that permeated throughout Red Raider volleyball.

“When we would play harder teams, we would almost be giving up during warm ups seeing how good of hitters they had,” Olivia said.

When Kim arrived in 2010, she brought with her an expectation of competitiveness. The Red Raiders lacked that edge, Kim said — a confidence on the court believing they could compete.

That was her first task, and possibly her greatest.

“Believing that it’s up for grabs and that they can win,” said Kim when asked about transforming the culture at Bellingham, “and they don’t have to believe, ‘We’re Bellingham. Teams will beat us.’ It’s taken a while to truly believe it. We speak it every day in the gym, but you have to live it.”

Making it to the Class 2A district tournament is the carrot the Red Raiders have so desperately tried to catch. To do so, Bellingham must place in the top four 2A schools in the NWC, competing with the likes of some of the best programs in the classification.

Just last year, Burlington-Edison went on to win the state championship. Sehome finished fourth, Squalicum seventh and Lynden eighth.

To put in perspective just how far the Red Raiders have come, they finished 7-7 overall last season, 5-7 in league play, sitting just one game behind Lynden for the fourth and final spot. If Bellingham would have finished in a tie with the Lions at 6-6 in conference play, it would have owned the tie-breaker.

That made the pill even more difficult to swallow.

“We only needed one more game to make it into districts, and we ended up losing that game,” Olivia said. “I think the end of last year we just had a lot of girls who wanted to have fun and finish off their season.”

Sitting on the doorstep of a district berth, Bellingham suffered four consecutive losses to Burlington-Edison, Nooksack Valley, Mount Baker and Ferndale to end the season.

Olivia and junior Summer Douglas don’t foresee similar heartbreak this season.

Optimism hasn’t been just a mentality. Bellingham is seeing the fruits of its labor after defeating its first three opponents this year, but no victory was more impressive than a 3-2 win over Squalicum on Thursday, Sept 18, when the team displayed that very belief Kim spoke of.

Douglas saw that mentality begin to form before the season began.

“I just feel like whenever we get in tough situations, we can pull ourselves out more than ever before,” the junior hitter said. “We have a younger team this year and I think we have a lot of hope.”

The tradition Kim is trying to establish hinges on her current crop of seniors. Commitment to the winning way — a commitment to excellence — is her formula. It’s not rocket science, but more a way of life. Olivia embodies her mother’s message, growing up without the burden of Bellingham’s past struggles.

Rather, she’s driving the belief that no matter the opponent or the circumstance, the days of the Red Raiders walking onto the court defeated are gone.

“We want to be the team the other team is scared of,” Olivia said. “In previous seasons we’ve been that team a lot of people said, ‘Oh, good thing we’re playing Bellingham.’ Now this is going to be a tougher game. ... It’s just so much more intensity and more desire to win.”

Practices run with more purpose, evidence of the devotion players have made to transforming Bellingham into an elite program. Now freshmen begin their careers as playoff contenders. Bottom dwellers is no longer synonymous with Bellingham volleyball.