All In The Family: Coach Leads Lummi Nation To Win In Finale

It’s all about family. That’s been the theme for the Lummi Nation boys basketball team for 18 years, and it was the theme Saturday night, June 12, as the Blackhawks wrapped up their 2021 season.

Lummi Nation did it in impressive fashion, dominating the second half in a 59-39 victory over Meridian on the Blackhawks’ home court.

“It’s crazy that it’s over,” said Jaie Leighton, one of four Lummi Nation seniors. “I grew up with these guys. It’s surreal. The memories you get here are matchless. This is your family.”

Family is important to the Lummi Nation team, and not just because so many are related as part of the greater Lummi Nation community. Basketball is just a part of the community’s identity, but a big part of it.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child, and for us it’s a tribe,” said Lummi Nation coach Jerome Toby, whose squad finishes the season 11-1. “Our tribe is behind us, the tribal council, the leadership … they are a huge part of our success. We’re one people; that’s our way of life.”

If the team is a family, then Toby is the head of the family.

In nearly two decades of coaching the Blackhawks, he’s taken them from being the forgotten team of Whatcom County basketball to the Class 1B state tournament for the first time in 2006 to winning the 1B state championship in 2015, a first for a tribal school in Washington state.

His teams have gone to state 10 times, earned four state trophies, including a fifth-place finish last year. But more than success on the court, he has given his players and his community something to be proud of.

“I believe we (basketball coaches) all have a platform,” said Meridian coach Shane Stacy, who played AAU ball with Toby as teenagers in the mid-1990s. “But I don’t think anybody is as important to their community as Jerome. He means more to his community than any other coach. He is irreplaceable.”

Lummi Nation assistant coach Kevin Day, who has been with Toby for 14 years, echoed that sentiment.

“It’s been a fun journey, and we embrace it (basketball as part of the community’s identity),” said Day. “We’re not just about the school but the whole community. We want it to be an inspiration to young kids. We started to make it a family thing, and it starts with him. I wouldn’t want to coach with anyone else.”

Saturday’s ending to the season was bittersweet. It was emotional, especially for the seniors — William Hetland, Moses Seymour, Franklin Whiteman and Leighton — all of whom came to Lummi Nation and the basketball program as sophomores from other schools.

It was especially hard since the Blackhawks had big expectations of improving on last year’s state finish, but were prevented not by another team but by the WIAA cancelling all state tournaments.

But going out with a victory is always nice, especially over another Whatcom County team. Hetland had a team-high 14 points, including four 3-pointers, and Leighton had 13 points and 7 rebounds. 

The team’s leading scorer, junior center Tyran Lane, played little more than a quarter because of foul trouble, but scored all 12 of his points in the fourth period and pulled down 9 rebounds. Sophomore Richard Wilson sparked the Blackhawks with 11 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists, and junior Duncan Toby had 8 assists.

Meridian, which played without its six seniors including four starters, kept it close until midway through the third period when the Blackhawks’ pressure turned steals into easy baskets. After holding Lummi Nation to 16 points in the first half, the Trojans gave up 22 points in the third period and 21 in the fourth.

Sophomore Hunter Jones, who has come into his own as a varsity starter, had 24 points, but no other Trojan managed more than four points.

While the Blackhawks finished their season on Saturday, the Trojans (6-6) still have two games to play next week — at Squalicum on Wednesday and at Lynden Christian on Friday.

“Lummi will be in Spokane next March (for the 1B state tourney) and state-caliber teams can bring out your weaknessses,” said Stacy. “I’m thankful that we got to experience this and hope this game stays fresh in our minds as we enter a very important off-season.”

The Blackhawks also will begin preparing for next season. Coach Toby will try to find time for his players this summer when he’s not working as a commercial fisherman. And his goal will continue to be the same as it has been since he started at Lummi.

“When I took the job, Duncan had just been born and somebody told me that you want to build a team that you want your son to play for,” said Coach Toby, whose son Duncan is, in fact, the starting point guard.

“The best thing about this job is seeing kids grow and develop, to encourage them in their dreams. Wins and championships are great, but I want to see them get married, become fathers. We want to see those success stories.”

Because, for Lummi Nation, it is all about family. 

Jim Carberry of Whatcom Hoops

Jim Carberry is a former Bellingham Herald sports editor and author of several books on Whatcom County prep basketball. Follow him on Twitter @whatcomhoops and visit the Whatcom Hoops Facebook page.

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