High School Football

First half of football season has offered plenty of thrills

Prep football’s midway point has arrived, and what an intriguing first half it’s been.

The first five weeks produced some nail-bitting instant classics, a state record-setting performance and even some odd drama coming out of Laurel.

And plenty regarding this year’s contenders and pretenders has been revealed along the way.

Squalicum, in less than two years, has established itself as a premier power in the Northwest Conference. The Storm (5-0, 3-0 NWC) is the league’s only remaining undefeated team. Who would have thought the program could elevate itself this quickly?

While Squalicum is ascending to new heights for the first time, an old powerhouse — Ferndale (4-1, 3-0 NWC) — already owns more wins than it had last year, and the Golden Eagles appeared poised to compete for a league title.

Suddenly, Lynden, which has played for the Class 2A state title each of the past four seasons, has company in the NWC, and the Lions (3-2, 2-1 NWC) are in an unfamiliar spot halfway through the year. Not in the AP top 10, not atop the NWC standings, who are these Lions?

Meanwhile, in the 1As, Mount Baker and Meridian seem to be the class of the conference. They’ve already offered a 33-28 gem Mount Baker won that was complete with controversy regarding a mystery minute added in the game’s final moments.

Before the second half of the year begins, here’s a look back at what’s been a memorable first half.

Best team: Squalicum

Thanks to a deep collection of athletes, an increased focus on physical play, a stingy defense and a junior quarterback who’s played with tremendous poise, the Storm have become the frontrunner to snag the NWC’s No. 1 seed in the district playoffs.

Squalicum took down Lynden, the state runner-ups last year, 27-0 on the road. And the Storm provided an encore performance the next week by beating the defending champs, Sedro-Woolley, 42-30 at home.

New QB Garrett Sorenson has filled in nicely, and he’s been able to distribute the ball to Josiah Westbrook and Ben Peterson. The signal caller has completed 58 percent of his passes for 792 yards, 11 touchdowns and three INTs. He’s also ran for 204 yards and three scores.

Defensively, Squalicum has shown an ability to match up well with some of the league’s best offenses, which was evident during its shutout of the Lions.

If the Storm can get past Ferndale this weekend in a game that’s shaping up to be the potentially game-of-the-year, there’s no reason to think Squalicum won’t finish the regular season undefeated.

Second-half team to watch: Lynden

Lynden football
Lynden's Jordan Wittenberg is pursued by Squalicum's Damek Mitchell on Friday, Sept. 18, at Lynden High School. Lynden lost two out of its first three games to open the year, but after winning two straight should be a team to watch the final four weeks of the season. Evan Abell The Bellingham Herald

There’s no reason to be foolish. The Lions are far from finished.

Week 3’s 27-0 home loss to Squalicum didn’t look good, but the Lions have rebounded with convincing back-to-back wins over Anacortes and Sehome.

Now the real work begins. These next three weeks will be more telling of who the Lions are.

Lynden enters a stretch of schedule that includes games against Burlington-Edison, Ferndale and Sedro-Woolley. Lynden looks to have solved some of its issues up front, and few teams can pass the ball like Sterling Somers and the Lions’ offense can.

If there’s anyone who can get the most out of a team it’s coach Curt Kramme. Lynden may not have as many physical difference makers as its had in the past, but the Lions certainly have the talent to be playing November football.

MVP so far: Squalicum’s Ben Peterson

Ben Peterson
Squalicum’s Ben Peterson breaks away during a football game Friday, Sept. 4. Peterson has accounted for eight touchdowns, has 288 receving yards and 129 rush yards through four games. PAUL CONRAD For The Bellingham Herald

This is a no-brainer.

Peterson is a game-changer, and the junior has displayed his penchant for making big plays time-and-time again through the first five weeks.

His stats are appealing: seven rushes, 129 yards and a TD; 13 receptions, 288 yards and four TDs. Those are through four games.

He also has a punt return for a touchdown, a kickoff return for a touchdown and a fumble return for a touchdown. Defensively, he supports the run tremendously from his safety spot and uses his blazing speed to track receivers.

The big plays he’s made, though, give him the edge over anyone else. Against Lynden, he tracked down Noah King early in the game and knocked the ball out his hands and out the back of the end zone to turn the game’s momentum. Against Sedro-Woolley, he sealed the game on the Cubs’ potential game-winning drive by stripping a ball and returning it back for a score. Against Burlington-Edison, he scored the game’s first 24 points on a rushing score, receiving score, kickoff return, field goal and three extra points.

Breakout player: Jalen Kortlever, Blaine

Kortlever hadn’t seen any varsity time before this year, and wasn’t even the team’s backup QB last season.

He worked diligently over the summer on his passing skills and has used talented pass-catchers Anthony Ball, Jonathan Starcer and Josh Fakkema to throw for 841 yards with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions.

He can make all the throws and gives the Borderites an extremely balanced offense.

Top performance: Jed Schleimer, Mount Baker, Week 4 vs. Nooksack Valley

Jed Schleimer
Evan Abell The Bellingham Herald

Before the season started Schleimer said coach Ron Lepper billed him “the man” in Mount Baker’s backfield, and the junior back has not disappointed.

He’s amassed a league-high 1,145 yards and 15 touchdowns averaging a ridiculous 14.3 yards per carry.

Much of that yardage was thanks to a state record-setting performance against Nooksack Valley Week 4. Schleimer went for an official 521 yards and scored touchdowns on carries of 35, 37, 55, 75, 77 and 78 yards.

Top offensive line: Ferndale

No NWC 2A/3A team has ran for more yards than the Golden Eagles.

Austin Honeycutt, Justice Powell, Taylor Bellefeuille, Cole Semu and Ben Broselle are great backs, but they’re also running behind an experienced, physical offensive line.

Ferndale is averaging 279 yards per game, and paving the way has been tackles Nick Bartel and Christian Rodriguez, guards Nate Slaton and Sam Cleary, center Zach Eriksen and tight end Winterhawk Leigton.

Best game: Week 5 Mount Baker at Meridian

Bellingham Herald

Squalicum’s ability to fend off Sedro-Woolley late was a great game, but no contest has been as good as the Mount Baker-Meridian matchup last week.

The Mountaineers fell behind 21-0 before scoring 27 unanswered points. Meridian was driving late in the fourth quarter when a mystery minute was added to the scoreboard.

Nick Dritsas scored a receiving touchdown off a tip with 2:04 left in the fourth quarter, giving the Trojans a 28-27 lead.

But Mount Baker went 87 yards and answered back with a touchdown from Mason Bass to T.J. Bass with 51 seconds left to give Mount Baker a wild 33-28 win.

Top defense: Ferndale

Paul Conrad for The Bellingham Herald

Ferndale and Squalicum both have tremendous defenses, but a narrow edge goes to the Golden Eagles.

Since showing some vulnerability against Kamiakin and Oak Harbor, Ferndale’s defense has been great against Blaine, Burlington-Edison and Anacortes. The Golden Eagles are giving up 21.8 points per game.

Taylor Bellefeuille is arguably the most sound linebacker in the Northwest Conference, and he is flanked by Jake Leavitt. Christian Rodriguez, Winterhawk Leighton, Austin Honeycutt and Chris Hernandez form a dominating defensive line, and secondary players James Hinson, Jacob Kildall, Sky Freeman and Justice Powell have had nice seasons so far.

Ferndale is yielding a respectable 156.8 rush yards per game and only 121.8 pass yards.

Oddest storyline: Meridian walkout

The first half of this fall season cannot be passed without remembering the odd situation at Laurel.

To refresh memories, a day before the Trojans’ Week 2 non-league matchup with Squalicum Meridian decided to forfeit its game.

Reports were a team walkout occurred due to players’ dissatisfaction with practice length and communication had soured between players and coaches.

As odd as the situation was, the Trojans played the following week and seem to have moved past the issue. Meridian is playing great football and has the looks of a state tournament team.