The first weekend of December is just more than 15 weeks away, and if recent history tells us anything, chances are at least one Whatcom County high school football team – possibly more – will still be playing when the Gridiron Classic roles around.
Since 1998, at least one of the 11 programs in the county has advanced to state championship weekend every year except 2007.
But every title run has to start somewhere. Though any coach will tell you a team’s success starts with the work put in during the offseason, Aug. 17, marked the first day football teams around Washington state were allowed to open fall practices in preparation for the season.
Here’s a look at what each area team plans to focus on during practices to prepare for Week 1 games Sept 2.
After a two-year hiatus to hit the reset button and rebuild the program, the Red Raiders return to play a full Class 2A Northwest Conference schedule in 2016.
The plan to temporarily leave the ultra-competitive NWC and play an unattached schedule the past two years has worked, allowing Bellingham to post a 5-5 record in 2014 and go 6-4 last year. Positive energy surrounding the program is back, as coach Ted Flint said he is expecting a turnout of close to 70 players.
“We’ve had our best summer since I’ve been at Bellingham – one of the better summers I’ve seen since I’ve been coaching,” said Flint, who is entering his third year leading the Red Raiders. “Pretty much all of our guys that played varsity were in here every day this summer. ... We’re excited to start playing the teams we’re used to playing and working to get better.”
The Borderites allowed 30.3 points per game during their 4-5 campaign in 2015, and improving that number will be a top priority if Blaine wants to get into the 2A NWC postseason race.
“We’re going to continue working to get better at tackling and defense,” coach Jay Dodd said. “We had too many points on the other side of the board last year, but the good news is we have plenty of guys back.”
Nowhere is that more evident than on the offensive line, where Dodd said he is expecting four of five starters back, and they’re “bigger and stronger this year.” Obviously, that’s great news for running back Riley Fritsch, who finished third in the NWC with 1,166 yards and 13 touchdowns rushing last year.
Dodd said he is expecting about 80 players to turn out.
After four years of being the only Class 3A school in the Northwest Conference, the Golden Eagles will start facing schools closer in size when they join the Wesco 3A North Division for football only. The move should open opportunities for the team to reach the postseason and potentially avoid top-ranked opponents in the early rounds.
Last year, Ferndale went 7-4 but had to beat Marysville-Pilchuck in a play-in game just for the right to play Bellevue in the quad-district playoffs. Playing a full Wesco schedule will give Ferndale the same opportunity as any other 3A team in the league to earn a No. 1 seed.
“The focus isn’t any different for us this year,” Ferndale coach Jamie Plenkovich said. “We’re just worried about ourselves right now. We’re going to work on installing our offense, defense and special teams and figure out who our best 11 are.”
One area Plenkovich said Ferndale will focus on is reloading its offensive and defensive lines, which graduated several quality players.
As their workout shirts, provided by Russell Athletic in a national marketing campaign, proclaim, the Blackhawks came within “1 Play” of winning their second Class 1B state title last year, when Almira-Coulee-Hartline beat them 46-42.
Needless to say, Lummi coach Jim Sandusky plans to use memories of that heartbreaking loss as motivation as his team looks to get back to the Tacoma Dome.
“Our focus this year is to play to the echo of the whistle,” Sandusky said. “Our code word when we have a yell is ‘attack.’ We have to get back to attacking and playing to the echo of the whistle.”
Sandusky said he is expecting about 30 players, so the roster issues the Blackhawks experienced early last season shouldn’t be a problem.
For the first time since 2005, the Lions did not advance to the Class 2A state playoffs, as they wrapped up their 6-4 campaign with a 21-17 loss to Sedro-Woolley in the 2A Northwest District playoffs.
Not surprisingly, that has stuck in Lynden’s craw the past nine months and inspired the Lions to work toward making a return in 2016.
“Last year was definitely a disappointment that we didn’t advance as far as we have,” Lynden coach Curt Kramme said. “We’ll tip our hats to Sedro-Woolley for playing a good game, but hopefully, our kids developed a renewed hunger and a renewed desire to make it back and go deeper into the postseason. We’ve seen that in spring ball and all the offseason work they put in, and now we need to carry that forward.”
Kramme said Lynden had 66 players in spring ball and is hoping for similar numbers this fall.
There will be a different but familiar voice leading the way for the Lyncs, as Dan Kaemingk returns as coach. Kaemingk led the Lyncs for 21 years before stepping down following the 2010 season, though he did return as a defensive coordinator on cousin Galen Kaemingk’s staff the past three years.
“We’re just excited to get going again,” Dan Kaemingk said. “Once you let go, you never know if you’re going to go again. We’re changing a few things on offense, and it will be a question of how quickly the kids will acclimate to the new things we’re teaching them.”
Kaemingk said he has a long list of talented seniors to replace off the squad that went 5-5 and lost to King’s in the Class 1A Northwest District playoffs. He expects a turnout of between 55 and 60.
Perhaps the only thing more colorful than the numerous practice jerseys the Trojans have been known to use is the new and different ways coach Bob Ames finds to downplay his team’s chances in the Class 1A NWC race during preseason workouts.
This year’s preseason gem from Ames: “The biggest question is are we going to be able to hang in there with the big three? It’s going to be a three-headed monster with LC, Mount Baker and Nooksack. We’re going to be like the county possum this year, playing dead in the middle of the road.”
Truth be told, Meridian has made it to state eight of the past nine seasons, including a 25-20 loss to Hoquiam in the first round of the 1A state playoffs last year, which wrapped up a 6-5 campaign. But Ames knows that means nothing now.
“We’re like everybody else – undefeated going into the season,” he said.
The Mountaineers have experienced an unprecedented level of success, reaching at least the second round of the Class 1A state playoffs each of the past four years. Last year, they fell 51-21 to Montesano in the quarterfinals to finish 10-2.
Getting back to that level will require Mount Baker to replace key graduates along the offensive line, at quarterback and on defense, coach Ron Lepper said.
“We lost some pretty good dudes,” Lepper said. “We’ve got to try to find the right pieces. I think we’ve got the pieces, but we’ve just got to figure out how to fit them together. ... We’re looking forward to keeping things going. We’ve had some fun the past few years, but we know the league is going to be tough.”
Lepper said he’s expecting about 60 players.
As difficult as 2015 may have been for the Pioneers after going 1-9 overall and winless in 1A NWC play, there is one stat from last year the team is excited about: They had only five seniors.
Because of that, Nooksack Valley returns 11 starters on each side of the ball, and coach Robb Myhre says he’s already seeing last season’s growing pains paying off in 2016.
“There’s nobody without experience out there,” Myhre said. “We went to camp at Eastern Washington, and I thought the kids looked more confident. We took a bunch of kids that hadn’t played a lot of football before last year, and now you can tell they’re a year older and have more confidence in what they’re doing. From the younger groups that are coming up, we’ll hopefully gain a little bit of depth, too. Now it’s up to us to figure out who fits better into spots and how to utilize their skills.”
After advancing to the 2A state playoffs in 2013, the Mariners suffered their second straight losing season, going 2-8 and finishing out of the postseason race last year.
This year, coach Bob Norvell expects to have more than 70 players, but his roster is going to be rather young.
“We’re going to have to go back on some stuff,” Norvell said. “For us, camp is really going to be about working on execution and technique. That’s where we’re going to start – kind of going back to basics and making sure everybody understands the fundamentals of the game.”
After the first two state playoff trips in school history in back-to-back seasons, things are going to be quite different for the Storm.
The school is moving up to Class 3A, meaning Squalicum will join Ferndale in the 3A Wesco North Division for football only, which obviously will bring a whole new set of challenges for a program that won its first NWC crown and went 11-1 last year, advancing to the state quarterfinals before losing to Tumwater for the second straight year.
“I think we’re just excited to play,” coach Nick Lucey said. “They’re like young kids on Christmas or a birthday – I don’t think they know what the holiday is, they’re just excited because there are presents out there. We’re excited to play a new batch of teams.”
As if that weren’t enough, Squalicum is looking forward to a new artificial surface practice field, which is now expected to be ready by mid-September, Lucey said.
Week 1 schedule
▪ Sehome at Mountlake Terrace (at Edmonds Stadium), 5 p.m.
▪ Nooksack Valley at Blaine, 7 p.m.
▪ Anacortes at Meridian, 7 p.m.
▪ Lynden Christian at Bellingham (at Civic Stadium), 7 p.m.
▪ Mount Baker at Roosevelt, 7 p.m.
▪ Terry Fox Secondary (B.C.) at Lynden, 7 p.m.
▪ Squalicum at Gig Harbor, 7 p.m.
▪ Vancouver (B.C.) Academy at Ferndale, 7 p.m.
▪ Seattle Lutheran at Lummi, 7 p.m.