Not since the advent of the Northwest Conference in 2006 has the landscape of Whatcom County football seen so much upheaval.
No longer are all 10 of the county’s 11-man teams in one neat and tidy three-tiered league. Fans will now have to keep their eyes on three completely separate sets of standings during the fall.
Though plans to set up the Northwest District in three separate, single-classification leagues – as was proposed shortly after the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association announced its reclassification numbers in January – ended up being scrapped, this fall and the next three football seasons during this classification cycle will look very different.
With Squalicum moving up to 3A this year and Ferndale tired of getting the short end of the stick when it came to postseason seeding with the 3A Wesco, the Storm and Golden Eagles decided to leave the NWC for football only and join the Wesco.
Both teams will play a full schedule in the 3A Wesco North along with Arlington, Marysville-Getchell, Marysville-Pilchuck, Oak Harbor and Stanwood.
Because the 3A Wesco South has one extra team and because of the desire to maintain a number of traditional Wesco rivalries, the North and South divisions will not play crossover games in Week 9, as was originally proposed.
Depending on the number of 3A state berths the district gets, the top teams in each division will move on to the round of 32 in Week 10. That sounds pretty good to Ferndale, which last year had to play two games in five days just to face Bellevue in the round of 32.
“Obviously, it’s exciting to have the opportunity to really earn where we’re going to go,” said Ferndale coach Jamie Plenkovich.
Both teams are also excited for the opportunity to face new teams beginning this fall, even though some traditional NWC rivalries will have to go on hiatus or lose a little importance – Squalicum will not face Bellingham this year, and the Ferndale-Lynden rivalry game will now be a nonleague Week 2 showdown.
Though Ferndale played Oak Harbor and Marysville-Pilchuck in 2015, it’s going to take time for the Golden Eagles and Storm to learn their new opponents. Squalicum coach Nick Lucey said he’s expecting play to be a little more physical against the bigger schools, while Plenkovich said he expects more depth both from individual teams and from the league as a whole.
“No matter what, it’s going to be a good quality slate, up and down,” Lucey said.
Though the NWC is losing two quality teams with the departure of Ferndale and Squalicum, the 2A league will continue to be the toughest in the state with traditional powers Lynden, Sedro-Woolley and Burlington-Edison, a talented Blaine squad, a couple of newcomers and Sehome.
The 2A NWC welcomes two teams, with the return of Bellingham from two years of playing an unattached schedule and the addition of Lakewood from the Cascade Conference in all sports.
“We lose two good teams, but we get two pretty good ones back,” Blaine coach Jay Dodd said. “This is still going to be a really tough league.”
The Red Raiders departed in 2014 in an attempt to get away from the weekly grind of the former 2A/3A NWC and give themselves a chance to rebuild the program. After going 5-5 and 6-4 the past two years, Bellingham now looks primed to jump into the middle of what figures to be a crowded race for a postseason spot.
Lakewood has gone 57-47 the past decade under coach Dan Teeter, including 47-17 the past six years, and made it to the 2A state playoffs in 2012 and 2013.
The top 2A NWC finishers after a seven-game league schedule will still square off against teams from the Cascade Conference, which now has three 2A representatives, and the Wesco’s lone 2A representative, Mountlake Terrace, in the Week 10 Northwest District playoffs. The number of teams advancing from each league will be determined once the WIAA releases the number of state bids the district gets.
This is the one league that really won’t see all that much change, though many probably wish it would.
The 1A NWC has the same four teams it’s had the past two years – Lynden Christian, Meridian, Mount Baker and Nooksack Valley – and as they have done the past two years, they’ll play each other twice.
Plans to mix with the four 1A Cascade Conference schools to form an eight-team league fell through, meaning after the six-game league schedule, the top teams from the 1A NWC will play the top teams from the 1A Cascade in the Week 10 Northwest District playoffs.
“Our conference is going to be pretty good again this year,” said Ron Lepper, whose Mountaineers have won the past four 1A NWC titles. “It’s that way every year. Nooksack’s got everybody back this year. You’ve got coach (Bob) Ames, and you know what he’s done with his kids over there, and they’ve got a good quarterback and some skill guys back. And then Lynden Christian’s got coach (Dan) Kaemingk back, who’s a proven guy. It’s going to be tough. We talk about understanding nothing is going to be a cake walk and understanding we’ve got our own expectations and we can only control what we do.”