For fans of defensive soccer skills, the Northwest Conference appears to be the place to watch.
Bellingham has now gone scoreless for all 240 minutes of its past three games, yet the Red Raiders have only one loss in that span while allowing just one goal.
Playing a man down for the final 30 minutes, the Raiders and sophomore goalkeeper Joe Worley held defending Class 2A state champion Squalicum to a 0-0 tie in a tense match-up of NWC contenders on Thursday, March 26, at Civic Stadium.
Bellingham coach Matt Zigulis put it best: “That was stressful to watch.”
Squalicum (4-0-2 overall, 1-0-1 NWC) extended its unbeaten streak to 29 matches, including all of last season, but Worley and the defense of the Red Raiders (1-2-3, 0-1-1) frustrated the Storm from the opening moments to the closing minutes.
Worley had five saves in the first 24 minutes alone. He finished with 12 stops, including saves in the 68th and 72nd minutes.
Meanwhile, Squalicum coach Joe McAuliffe said he marveled at how Storm midfield standouts Brandon Burbank, Quinn Carpenter, Zach Wallace controlled the tempo and kept their cool, helping to limit Bellingham to three shots, all in the first half including a free kick.
Storm goalkeeper Owen Davis-Bower, who sustained a broken nose in a non-league game, was knocked down in the 50th minute by Bellingham junior Christian Mittett, who received a red card. That meant an automatic ejection and Bellingham had to play a man down the rest of the way.
“He was challenging for the ball,” said the sturdy 6-foot-1½ junior Davis-Bower, who had collected a loose ball a yard or so to the side of the goal mouth. “I checked it (the setting of his nose) and I’ll be fine.”
Because of the contact involved, Zigulis confirmed that Mittett must miss the next three games. Bellingham junior striker Jack Lewis-Clarke, who was given a red card two days earlier in a 1-0 loss to Sehome, sat out against Squalicum and will miss the next two games as well for the same reason.
Zigulis credited Worley with an especially gutty effort.
“Joe kept us in it until the very end, especially with all that pressure,” said Zigulis, who noted that Mittett returned to rejoin the team because he wanted to be with the Raiders on the sideline.
“That was definitely a team effort defensively,” Zigulis said. “I’m proud of how our team reacted, when he went down a man. I want to commend our guys for their heart, but give credit to Squalicum.”
McAuliffe was also more than a little impressed with Worley.
“He didn’t have his best game in our non-league meeting (a 4-0 Squalicum win March 18, which actually began Bellingham’s scoreless frustrations, meaning the Red Raiders have gone scoreless four consecutive games). But this was like night and day,” McAuliffe said. “He was much better.”
Davis-Bower was called on for only two saves, both in the first half, as the Storm had a 16-3 shot-on-goal advantage.
“We frittered away some things,” said McAuliffe, noting how many opportunities the Storm failed to take advantage of.
But McAuliffe certainly wasn’t frustrated with the Storm’s sterling defensive effort.
“I loved how they showed grit and got back so well,” he said.
As usual, the Storm’s backline of BJ James, Spencer Wallace Riley Zehnder and Ben Peterson was solid.
One of Worley’s top stops occurred when he dove hard in the 44th minute to prevent Storm sophomore scoring standout Tyler Hughes from getting a goal.
Squalicum next plays on Monday night, March 30, at NWC contender Anacortes, which began Bellingham’s offensive woes with a scoreless tie in a non-league game. On the same night, Bellingham faces much-improved Nooksack Valley at Civic Stadium.
Shots on goal: Squalicum 16, Bellingham 3. Goalkeepers (saves): Bellingham: Joe Worley (12); Squalicum: Owen Davis-Bower (2).