For a game that didn’t mean anything in the standings, the Blaine-Ferndale boys basketball contest sure meant a lot to the teams. And the alumni. And the fans.
In fact, it turned out to be a memorable afternoon for everyone involved in and who witnessed Blaine’s thrilling 65-63 Northwest Conference victory over Ferndale on Saturday, Feb. 5.
“They’ll remember this,” said Ferndale coach Jason Owens. “It goes down as an ‘L’ in the books, but it was a win for the Ferndale community.”
What made it special for Ferndale was the emotional events that surrounded the game.
First, it was Seniors Night — or technically Seniors Afternoon — when seven cheerleaders, two sports med students, and eight boys basketball players and their families were recognized before the game.
Xander Castleberry, Jazen Guillory, Ethan Lagerwey, Jesse Sapp, Mark Schlicting, Nate Tsegaye, and Luke Wells went to center court before the game, but one of their own was missing. Sean Morrison, who is expected to have brain surgery on Tuesday, was only there in spirit.
So to remember their friend and teammate, his jersey was placed on one of the chairs on the bench and the Golden Eagles wore warm-up t-shirts that read “more than a game” on the front and Morrison’s number 2 on the back.
Then the team presented Owens with a signed basketball to show how much they cared about their head coach. And Owens showed how much he cared about his seniors by starting five of them, including some who probably had never started a varsity game.
But there was more. The game was billed as the last regular-season contest to be played in the current Ferndale gym, which will be razed to make room for the new high school facility that is being constructed and will open in September.
The attached “old” gym, which was first used in the 1957-58 season, and the current “new gym,” which opened for the 1975-76 season, have seen thousands of boys and girls basketball games, volleyball games, wrestling matches, and gymnastics meets — not to mention band concerts, assemblies, dances, graduations, etc.
To commemorate that history, all former Ferndale boys basketball players were asked to get their picture taken on the court at halftime.
The Ferndale gym has hosted three boys basketball teams that reached state (1964, 1995 and 1996, which took fourth), and four girls teams that reached state (1988, 2008, 2009 and 2014). In volleyball, Ferndale has gone to state 17 times, earning six trophies and winning state in 1987. The wrestling team also won state in 1992 and was runner-up in 1988.
So Saturday was quite the event. The Golden Eagles did everything right, it turned out, except win the game … but, boy, did they come close.
The Borderites were the ones who started as if they were playing for a state berth, even though both teams were locked into their district seeding regardless of the outcome. Using their pressure defense, Blaine jumped out to a 24-6 lead in the first quarter.
“It excited us,” said Blaine junior Lucas Smith of the Ferndale pre-game program. “We were ready for it.”
For three quarters, the Borderites controlled the pace, leading by as much as 26 and still by a comfortable 17 going into the fourth period. It’d seemed like an anti-climactic ending to Ferndale’s Eagles Nest.
“We had a great start,” said Blaine coach Brett Farrar. “But give Ferndale credit. Mark, Jazen, and Luke are really, really tough; three of the best players in the league. And you can’t hold all three guys in check.”
Not on their special day. Schlichting, Guillory and Wells sparked a comeback for the ages, each hitting a 3-pointer in the first three minutes of the final period to help the Golden Eagles slowly claw back to within six with 1:40 to go.
When Blaine junior Carson Lehnert hit his second 3-pointer of the fourth quarter, the Ferndale rally appeared to be over. But junior Damian Toney made a layup, Guillory hit another 3-pointer, and with the crowd going wild, Schlichting hit another 3 from NBA distance with 21 seconds left as the Golden Eagles cut the margin to one.
Lehnert made the second of two free throws to make it 65-63 with 16.8 left, and Ferndale had one last chance — make that two chances — to cap the perfect ending.
But the final play never developed and Guillory was forced to fire up a bomb under pressure with time running out. It came up short, and Toney tried to put in the rebound at the buzzer, but it bounced away.
“What an amazing environment,” said Owens. “Give credit to Blaine. They came fired up. They were matching our environment. But our kids never quit. (At halftime) I told them, ‘Just do what you do.’ I thought for sure it would go in (at the end). It didn’t quite go our way.”
Schlichting, who hit five 3-pointers for a team-high 15 points, agreed.
“It was a really fun environment,” he said. “It felt like a playoff game. It took us a quarter to get into it. We had a final shot. You couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Guillory finished with 14 points with nine points and two 3s coming in the fourth period when the Golden Eagles put up 27 points. He also had 10 rebounds and 10 assists for a triple-double. Sophomore Conner Walcker added 12 points, and Toney had 9 points.
For Blaine, Smith and senior Cole Thomas had 15 points each with Smith putting in a trio of 3s and Thomas bombing in a pair. Senior Scott Baldwin had 12 points, Lehnert had 11, and Matthew Russ added 7. In the critical final period, Lehnert’s two 3s and Smith’s five points proved to be enough to hold off Ferndale.
It was an exciting end to the regular season for both teams, who are now headed for the playoffs. Although the official seeding will be released on Sunday, both teams are expecting to face familiar foes in the first round.
Blaine (11-4 overall and 9-4 in the Northwest Conference) is the Class 1A second seed and will play top-seed Lynden Christian on Friday at Nooksack Valley for the district title and a berth in the bi-district crossover.
Ferndale (8-10 overall and 8-7 in league) is expected to be seeded seventh in the Class 3A district tournament and will play second-seed Shorecrest on Tuesday in Seattle. The two teams met in the season opener.
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.