Both the Blaine and Nooksack Valley boys basketball teams were looking to improve when the two inexperienced squads squared off Wednesday night, May 19. And they both got their wish.
But only one could notch its first victory of the young season, and it was the host Borderites who took a 68-55 victory over the Pioneers in a typical Northwest Conference battle.
Blaine’s inexperience came from having only a few practices to prepare for its first week of games after not playing together for more than 14 months. It showed in their season opener Monday, when they lost to Lynden Christian by 53 points.
“That’s the worst loss I’ve ever had,” said junior Scott Baldwin, who had 12 points in the Borderites’ balanced attack. “After that we decided to go at it as one. It started with Coach. We played with a lot more energy (Wednesday). It’s going to be really, really exciting to see how we turn out.”
Blaine coach Brett Farrar said the lack of summer basketball due to COVID restrictions meant missing opportunities for the team to build cohesiveness and unity.
“We talked a lot after the LC game about loving on each other, about enjoying each others’ successes, about being unselfish, and coming together as a unit,” said Farrar.
“Tonight, I thought our guys in spurts were really, really good. And at other times we looked like we had 400-plus days off. But we played 11, and the effort was really good by everyone. Hopefully, we can build on some things.”
The Borderites looked good when their fullcourt pressure helped them take a 16-point halftime lead, which they stretched to more than 20 in the third quarter.
Leading the Blaine attack was sophomore sharpshooter Carson Lehnert, who came off the bench to hit four 3-pointers and finish with a team-high 15 points. In addition to Baldwin’s dozen, junior Cole Thomas had 11 points, senior Josh Russ had 9, and sophomore Lucas Smith had 8.
But if Blaine’s inexperience came from not playing on varsity together, Nooksack Valley’s inexperience came from not playing on varsity at all. Only one Pioneer, Cody Coppinger, returned from last year’s squad.
That inexperience showed in Nooksack Valley’s first two games — a 22-point loss to Mount Baker and a 55-point defeat to Class 2A power Lynden.
“We have to take it game by game, half by half, quarter by quarter,” said Nooksack Valley coach Rich Skillman. “We just want to get better and have a chance to grow. Learning to compete is part of it. The second half, we played with more confidence.”
In the second half, the Pioneers rode Coppinger’s hot hand to slowly whittled the deficit to single digits. In a two-minute span of the fourth quarter, the 6-foot-2 senior had a 3-pointer, a steal and layup, a layup off an inbounds play, and a three-point play.
Nooksack Valley sophomore Ayden Roper sank a 3-pointer with two minutes left to cut the margin to 59-51. But Lehnert then hit his fourth 3-pointer, and Thomas scored on a turnaround jumper as the Borderites ended the Pioneers’ comeback.
Coppinger finished with a game-high 25, 22 of them coming in the second half and 14 in the fourth quarter. Junior Dawson Kimball added 13, and Roper finished with 10 points.
“We’ve got a young group of guys and it’s going to take time to come together,” said Coppinger. “I’m proud of how they stayed in the game. I like showing them what it (playing on varsity) is like. I’m hoping they take Nooksack back to state.”
NOTES: Both Nooksack Valley and Blaine have already altered their schedules. The Pioneers’ game on Friday against Lummi Nation was canceled. Blaine picked up a game against Lummi Nation on June 3, and changed the location of two other games. The Borderites will now play this Friday’s game at home against Sedro-Woolley, and will play their June 16 game at Ferndale.
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.