Squalicum’s guard talent has never been questioned.
On paper Josiah Westbrook, Damek Mitchell, Darious Powell, Noah Westerhoff and Josh Vail formed one of the best young backcourts in the Northwest Conference heading into the season.
They’ve helped Squalicum clinch a Class 2A District Tournament berth, and a win next week over Lynden would give the Storm a league championship.
But between now and Squalicum’s season opener Dec. 2 against Bellingham, an impressive transformation has transpired, one that’s bonded the five guards and made them one of the toughest groups of perimeter players to face in Whatcom County.
“Each of them has some gifts and some individual ability they bring to the table,” Storm coach Dave Dickson said. “Finding ways to essentuate what they do well, work on some fundamentals, it’s been a fun process with them. What has been really gratifying is their desire to get better and recognize that they are not complete.”
To fully put into perspective the evolution the group’s underwent this winter it’s important to recongize the past.
This isn’t the first season Westbrook, Mitchell, Powell and Westerhoff have shared the same court. Westbrook and Westerhoff use to play on the same team growing up in Blaine, and later they all played AAU hoops either together or against each other.
“Darious and Damek played on AAU teams with Noah, and then I always played against them sometimes,” Westbrook said, “so we always knew of each other and knew how we kind of played, and that made us closer.”
That bond has carried over, but before it could flourish Mitchell, Westbrook and Westerhoff needed to join the rest of the squad following a football run that took Squalicum to the Class 2A State Playoff quarterfinals.
“First practices it was really tough, because the guys were playing football,” Vail said. “Most of our guards were playing football. We didn’t have unity at first, but when all those guys came back, Noah, Damek, Josiah, when they came in it helped unite us more. I think that really helped us a lot.”
Early chemistry didn’t come easy. Squalicum had graduated several key players the year before, thrusting Blaine transfer Westbrook and the Storm’s four other guards into featured roles.
While Squalicum’s backcourt began defining roles, sheer talent propelled them to early sucess. Add in new-found cohesion and the Storm have been rolling.
Junior off-guard Westbrook is averaging a team-high 18.4 points per game, which ranks fourth in the NWC. Mitchell, a sophomore point guard, is averaging 15.3 a night, providing the Storm a lethal backcourt scoring tandem.
Powell, a sophomore who comes off the bench, is averaging 9.0 per game and gives the Storm another strong perimeter shooter. Sophomore Westerhoff and junior Vail are averaging 5.3 and 2.1 points, respectively, and offer stout defense and high energy.
Squalicum’s offense is flashy, largely credited to the play of Westbrook and Mitchell, but improved defense from the Storm (14-5, 9-2 NWC), Dickson said, has powered the team down the stretch.
“Obviously they are guys with skill and do some things offensively that are very impressive,” Dickson said, “but as a group they have improved defensively significantly, and that’s one of the reasons we as a team has improved.”
Jelling-wise, several moments throughout the year could be viewed as identity-forming experiences.
Some players suggested an early-season trip to Barrow, Alaska for a basketball tournament brought the team closer. Mitchell recalled the team doing karaoke at Creighton Kaui’s cousin’s place.
It’s those moments and ones after Friday night games where they head to someone’s house to hang out that have bonded the group.
“When we were over there we really bonded off the court,” Powell said of the Alaska trip. “Not all of us spend time together, but when we were there we came together I guess, and when we came back it carried on. We all hang out now.”
On the court, several games have served as defining moments.
Westbrook highlighted a triple-overtime win against Prairie during a winter tournament at the Yakima SunDome. Another huge victory came against Anacortes on Jan. 16, two games after the Storm lost its first league game to Bellingham.
Even the game following Anacortes, a 10-point road victory against Sehome, showed how strong of a team the Storm can be.
A recognizable trait to Squalicum’s success is the team’s competitive nature, and that mentality permeates throughout the five guards. Westbrook said the group has tried to adopt the Seattle Seahawks’ coined mantra ‘always compete.’
And because the guards are so close, they have no problem going after each other in practice.
“We are always bickering like, ‘Oh, I can get you, I can get you this time,’” Westbrook said. “We’re always playing one-on-one, too.”
Squalicum is anticipating a strong postseason run this year, but with a young, talented backcourt nucleus the future looks bright.