Senior receiver/defensive back Nich Smith still remembers the feeling from three years ago during a freshman football game, when he realized there were only 12 other players dressed in the same Bellingham red he was wearing. He looked across the field and saw a team of 40 or more awaiting kickoff.
“Going into that, it was a little intimidating,” Smith said. “We were such a small program, and we were struggling at that time. You see all these guys on the other sideline, and then we have one or two subs on our side.”
The situation at the varsity level wasn’t any better, and in a game any high school football coach will say is all about numbers, that added up to certain doom for Bellingham. The Red Raiders went winless in 2013 after winning just three games combined – one of which came in Northwest Conference play – in 2011 and ’12.
“We weren’t too good,” senior lineman Hunter Bills said, remembering his freshman year. “It was hard being a player. When you had only 20 – maybe 25 – people in practice and then have almost nobody in the school believe in us, it was hard.”
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Desperate times called for desperate measures, and in what seemed like a Hail Mary not even Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers would have a shot at completing, Bellingham decided to pull its football program out of the ultra-competitive NWC for two years. During that hiatus, the Red Raiders still played traditional rivals Sehome and Squalicum and filled out the rest of their independent schedule with games against teams ranging in size from Class 3A to 2B. The hope was it would give the program a chance to hit the restart button and rebuild while avoiding the week-to-week grind of one of the toughest 2A leagues in the state.
On Friday, Sept. 16, Bellingham will see if the time away has paid off, as it travels to Lynden for its first league game since losing 57-12 to Sehome on Halloween night in 2013.
“I thought it was a good opportunity to start getting the program up to pace with the rest of the conference,” senior receiver/linebacker Kelton Connors said of the move to an independent schedule. “We were struggling a lot for multiple years, and it was going to take something big to help out the program.”
The rebuilding process
The move was made shortly before Bellingham athletic director Chad Larsen named Ted Flint as the new coach in May 2014. Flint said he wasn’t so sure pulling out of the NWC was the right move at the time, “but I think it worked out really well. It allowed us to play the young kids in a progressive manner.”
It also allowed the program a chance to begin getting the taste of success.
After dropping their first three games in 2014 against Squalicum, Sehome and Lynden Christian by a combined 107 points, the Red Raiders won five of their final seven against non-NWC opponents to finish with a .500 record.
In 2015, Bellingham again lost to the Storm, Mariners and Lyncs before winning six of its final seven to finish with its first winning record (6-4) since 2008.
“I think the point we realized things were starting to turn was midway through the first season of being off league,” Bills said, “just because we started winning games and the mentality of practice was way different. Everybody was focusing, and my freshman year we weren’t. Toward the end of the second year, we started feeling like we could compete with anybody.”
The positive vibes are still being seen in the once-downtrodden program.
Participation numbers are way up, as Bellingham was able to send varsity, junior varsity and C squads to Wenatchee for a summer football camp – the first time the Red Raiders have been able to do so in years.
“We’ve been trying to establish a winning tradition, which is one of the things that was really beneficial about playing the alternate schedule the last two years,” Smith said. “If you start winning games, then people get more excited to come play. That really helps with making the team better.”
So does hard work. Smith, Bills and Connors – who along with senior running back/linebacker Dakota Johanson have stuck with the program through all four years of the rebuilding process – all said there was a different feeling surrounding the program this summer as the Red Raiders prepared to return to the NWC.
“There was much more urgency in getting guys to the weight room this summer,” Smith said. “We’ve been ramping up our efforts to get ready to face the challenge that lies ahead of us.”
Returning to the NWC
Even the rest of the school has started to take notice. Bills, who is in Steve Chronister’s leadership class at Bellingham, said the class has been focusing on getting more students out to games this season, even starting a “rooter bus.”
“It’s way different,” Bills said. “People are starting to respect the team inside the school.”
But things are about to get much tougher, as the Red Raiders head into the meat of the NWC 2A schedule – a gauntlet sure to test just how far the team has progressed since 2013 with games against Lynden, Blaine, Burlington-Edison and Sedro-Woolley in the next five weeks.
“This is just a chance for us to go out there and compete with one of the best,” Connors said. “Like our defensive coordinator says, we have to play with a chip on our shoulders. We’re ready to face with that level of competition and prove we can compete.”
Week 3 schedule
Friday, Sept. 16
▪ Sedro-Woolley at Blaine, 7 p.m.
▪ Bellingham at Lynden,
▪ Port Townsend at Mount Baker, 7 p.m.
▪ Nooksack Valley at Coupeville, 7 p.m.
▪ Marysville-Pilchuck at Squalicum (at Civic Stadium), 7 p.m.
▪ Taholah at Lummi, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 17
▪ Cashmere at Lynden Christian, 2 p.m.
▪ South Kitsap at Ferndale, 4 p.m.
▪ Meridian at Cascade Christian (at Sumner),
▪ Lakewood at Sehome (at Civic Stadium), 7 p.m.