Practices began last week, and as the winter sports season gains momentum, here are the players and stories to watch out for in basketball and wrestling.
Every team’s ultimate goal is a state title, and in 1A no one will be overlooking the Borderites as a contender this year. The girls basketball team made a strong bid last year without any seniors, and this year an experienced core of juniors and seniors will challenge opponents.
The Borderites’ entire starting five returns to action this year – a formidable lineup with at least four high-scoring players on the court at any time. Alexis McElwain and Olivia Olason will provide senior leadership, and juniors Breanna Chau, Taylor V’Dovec and Mandy Hayes will likely make headlines.
With hopes of going to Yakima, Blaine was knocked out of the regional round of the state tournament last year by Castle Rock, the undefeated, number one ranked team in 1A.
The team has been practicing since November 18. The first game of the season is on the road at Sedro-Woolley on Friday, December 6. The game starts at 7 p.m.
After graduating all but one of its usual starting five from last year, the Blaine boys basketball team is full of new faces.
That’s a good and a bad thing according to head coach Shaun Pile.
“It’s nerve-wracking because a lot of our players won’t have had a lot of game experience, but it’s also kind of exciting because they all bring new things to the table. Also, it’s about more than just this year, so young talent bodes well for the future,” Pile said.
Sophomore Josiah Westbrook, senior Cole Muder and junior Jon Fakkema are the only returning players with significant varsity experience. Westbrook is the only returning starter. He was a leading scorer on last year’s team, with the ability to shoot from the perimeter and drive to the basket at will.
“He’s put in time over the summer and improved his mid-range jump shot, which really rounds out his offensive repertoire,” Pile said.
Junior Sean Herrig is a “great shooter” who has improved over the off-season, Pile said, and Carson Knutzen is a “crafty younger player who can help out Josiah and create shooting opportunities.”
Pile said the team is excited about a new offense modeled after teams such as the University of Kentucky and the Denver Nuggets.
“It will help spread the floor and give our guards more opportunity to attack the rim and find the open guy. It should play to the strengths of all our players,” he said.
It will also help put post players such as Fakkema and sophomore Shaquille Woods in a better position to score.
“I think you’ll see post players putting up bigger numbers,” Pile said.
All five teams in the 1A Northwest district will receive a bid to the district tournament this year.
After a week of practice, Pile said he’s encouraged by what he’s seen.
“This is a group I’ve had the privilege of coaching since they were in seventh grade,” Pile said. “I’m seeing a lot of growth and maturity. It’s a good group of kids, and they’re pretty close off the court, which always helps the team. I don’t think attitude will be a problem.”
The Borderites schedule this year stacks a majority of home games in the first half of the season. The first game is Friday, December 6 at home versus Sedro-Woolley, and the next game is Saturday, December 7 at home versus Coupeville.
Coach Craig Foster has been coaching for more than 20 years, but said he has never seen a turnout this big – 38 students have signed up for the team this year.
Of those, eight wrestlers are returning from a trip to the state tournament in Tacoma, where Blaine placed eighth in 1A last year.
“That’s the largest group of state wrestlers I’ve ever coached,” Foster said. “It’s always nice to have those returning veterans.”
Olivia Adams competed in the girls state tournament last year, and returns as an experienced junior.
Michael Antczak placed fourth in the state in the heavyweight division. “We’re looking for a big year out of him,” Foster said.
Returning wrestlers Jon Stewart, Christian Sharp, Kyle Gonzales, Gage Lott, Caleb and Anthony Frey and Billy Dodd all saw action at the state tournament. Stuey Rasar and Israel Hernandez also made the trip to Tacoma as alternates. The veterans will have their hands full mentoring an incoming group of 17 freshmen.
“That’s an unbelievable turnout of young guys. We’ll have a nice blend of veterans returning from state, experienced developing wrestlers and incoming freshman,” Foster said. “So we’ll have lots of depth. Our main challenge will be separating out wrestlers to fill as many weight slots as we can.”
Riley Fritsch is one freshman who is expected to make an impact on the mats.
“He’s been wrestling his whole life, and he’s been working hard,” Foster said.
“We’re pretty optimistic for the season. We’re hoping for no injuries and getting to the end of the season with a good lineup.”
Perennial rivals Mount Baker fields a strong team this year, as does Nooksack Valley and Sedro-Woolley.
“We’ll have some good battles,” Foster said.
The first match is Thursday, December 5 at Meridian versus Lynden and Meridian. This year’s Battle at the Border, a two-day tournament pitting dozens of schools against each other on the mats of Blaine High School, is scheduled for Friday, December 13.