BELLINGHAM — Last season, the Nooksack Valley boys basketball team won just three games in Northwest Conference play, finishing out of the postseason picture with the worst record among NWC 1A schools.
With a 65-59 road victory over Bellingham on Monday, the Pioneers have already equaled that win total, improving their record to 8-6 (3-4 NWC).
After earning a 58-48 win over Sehome on Jan. 9, the win was the second in three games for Nooksack, which is led by second-year head coach and 2008 Nooksack graduate Rich Skillman.
“We’re making progress, but we’ve got a long way to go still,” Skillman said of his team’s season to date. “We have some things to clear up on the defensive end, but overall I’m pretty happy with the guys and how hard they are willing to work for me.”
Senior forward Casey Bauman, better known for his skills on the football field, gave the Red Raiders all kinds of fits on Monday with 20 points and a bushel of rebounds.
His size and power were impressive enough, but it was the passing of Bauman and fellow senior big Jordan Veening, who ended up with 12 points on the night, that made the difference for the Pioneers.
The beneficiaries of those passes from the post were Nooksack’s shooters, namely junior Ty Rawls and sophomore Zach Johnson.
Johnson managed a 21-point performance on six three-pointers off the bench. Rawls was similarly efficient from behind the arc, connecting on four threes for all 12 of the starter’s points.
“They’re great shooters,” Skillman said of Johnson and Rawls. “We’ve been getting them confidence in practice. When you have two 6-6 guys down in the post (Bauman and Veening), you might as well shoot it.”
After Bellingham scored the first points of the game on a layup, Rawls answered right away with a three to get the Pioneers rolling. The junior would hit another deep shot in the period to give Nooksack an 8-2 advantage, then Johnson later hit back-to-back triples as NV led 18-12 after one quarter.
Nooksack continued on its hot start and built a 26-12 lead after another three Rawls three, forcing a Bellingham timeout. That’s when the Red Raiders woke up and began to make some serious noise.
After four straight points for the Red Raiders were followed by six straight points from the powerful Bauman, the Pioneers led 32-16. Bellingham then went on a 14-0 run to end the first half to make the score 32-30 at the intermission.
Senior Ritz Voeut, junior Drew McFall and junior Rand Bentley were all key during the Red Raiders’ surge, which was powered by a series of Nooksack turnovers.
Bellingham tied the game at the start of the third, but Veening answered with two free throws and Rawls hit his fourth three to help the Pioneers reestablish their lead at 37-32. Things went back and fourth throughout the third, but behind seven points from Bauman in the period, Nooksack Valley managed to take a 50-37 advantage into the final frame.
Johnson added to Nooksack’s lead with a three to start the fourth quarter. After the teams traded free throws, Bauman found the hot-handed Johnson again for three, and Nooksack eventually took an 11-point lead in the period.
A three by Bellingham’s Voeut cut the lead to 60-57, but the Pioneers hit their free throws down the stretch to come out on top 65-59.
While Nooksack Valley has had their difficulties dealing with the top teams in the NWC, such as Lynden, Lynden Christian and Anacortes, the victory helps the Pioneers stay right in the thick of things in the race for the postseason among the league’s four 1A schools.
Lynden Christian (15-0, 7-0 NWC) is likely to take the top spot out of the NWC 1A, Mount Baker (8-5, 3-4), Meridian (3-9, 1-5) and Nooksack will battle for the other two available district playoff berths out of the conference.
Nooksack plays at Mount Baker at 7:30 p.m. Friday and is at Meridian on Jan. 27 at 7:15 p.m.
“Anything in our league is going to be tough,” Skillman said of the Pioneers standing in the NWC 1A. “I keep telling the guys ‘just keep putting yourselves in situations where you can take advantage (of the opportunity) and give yourselves a chance.’”
Following the Meridian game, Nooksack finishes the season with two home games against Sedro-Woolley and Squalicum.
The Pioneers are seeking their first state appearance since 2011.