The evening of Sept. 9, 2022, went exactly as Bellingham High School football coach Adam Leonard planned.
His team won, 15-10, over Meadowdale, and the team bus driver made sure Leonard made it back to Civic Stadium in time to catch his son playing in the fourth quarter of Squalicum High School’s game against Fife.
Leonard’s son, Josh, a 6-foot-3 left-handed quarterback, was making his second career start for Squalicum. Josh was a junior at the time, and Adam knew how finite the opportunities were to watch his son play.
Squalicum and Bellingham share a home field at Civic Stadium and often played on different nights. Adam was able to attend, in full, about half of Josh’s games during the 2022–23 season.
“It was tough on me last year,” Adam recalled. “I mean, this is my oldest child, and I want to see everything he’s done.”
Now Adam has the opportunity to call plays for Josh, who has developed into a standout player under his father during his final year of high school. It follows a difficult decision and appeals process of transferring to Bellingham for the sake of his family.
It was the right decision, Josh said, and the benefit of playing under his father was simply a bonus. Adam, who is in just his second season as Bellingham’s head coach, was thrilled — he had previously coached Josh every year of his son’s football career until eighth grade.
Through seven games, Josh has led Class 2A Bellingham to a 4-3 record — including four straight victories — while playing a schedule independent of the local Northwest Conference. He currently leads Whatcom County in pass completions, yards and touchdowns, according to Whatcom Preps.
‘I was as surprised as anybody’
Following Josh’s junior season in 2022–23, Adam assumed his son would return to Squalicum as a senior and continue in his starting quarterback role with the Storm.
Adam’s middle son, Benjamin, was set to be a freshman at Bellingham in 2023–24, and Josh wanted to be there to support his younger brother and to keep the family together.
“It wasn’t anything to do with Squalicum or even a pull from Bellingham,” Josh said. “It was mostly because of my brother … I just thought it would be easier for him and our whole family if we could stay together.”
“I was as surprised as anybody when he decided that he wanted to try to transfer and play at Bellingham his senior year,” Adam added. “It worked out really well. It’s been a blessing to be able to coach him [again].”
Junior tight end Gabriel Van Hofwegen played quarterback for Bellingham last season, though it was never a natural position for him, Adam said. Josh’s arrival gave the roster what it needed in a true quarterback, and Van Hofwegen could move back to his desired spot on the depth chart.
After initiating the academic transfer in the spring of 2023 and receiving approval, Josh played with Bellingham during spring ball, despite still being a student at Squalicum. All football activities outside of the regular season are considered “non-varsity activities,” Adam said, which allowed Josh to participate before he was granted varsity status by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA).
In the summer, Bellingham attended team camp at Central Washington University, and it was there Josh bonded with his new teammates.
“It was weird to leave school and then go play for a different team,” Josh said. “I think the players at Bellingham really helped me feel comfortable with the transition. Right away, they were supportive.”
Adam and Josh endured an appeals process that included an August hearing with the WIAA to determine whether he would be granted varsity status. Transfer athletes, generally, are not eligible to compete on varsity teams for one calendar year after changing schools.
The hearing and appeal submitted for Josh were under the Residence Rule Waiver (section 18.14.0 of 2023-24 WIAA Handbook). Along with documents supporting Josh’s desire to keep their family together without having to move houses, the hearing had to ensure there was “ no evidence that either the student transferred for the purpose of participating in interscholastic athletics or transferred as a result of having been recruited for the purpose of participating in interscholastic athletics,” the handbook states.
“The hearing went fantastic,” Adam said. “That same evening … we heard from the district director out of Arlington that we had won the appeal.”
After preparing to be the starting quarterback for months, Josh was granted varsity status only one week before the team’s first game on Sept. 3.
“It was just the best news because we could move on,” Adam said. “We were in need of a quarterback, and he was the perfect fit. We prepped the whole time and, not only as his father but then as a head coach, I don’t know what I [was] going to do if we [didn’t] win the appeal.”
Squalicum High School athletics officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The perfect pairing
As a senior, Josh is on pace to nearly double his metrics from a season ago.
Last season he completed 94 of 216 passes (43.5% completion) for 1,407 yards and 16 touchdowns in nine games, according to Whatcom Preps.
At Bellingham, Josh is 125-of-199 passing (62.8% completion) for 1,939 yards and 24 touchdowns through seven games, according to Whatcom Preps.
“I’ve been coaching this kid here since he was 5 years old at the quarterback position. I know what he can do,” Adam said. “I also know, too, if I got an opportunity to coach him that we would really open it up and we would start to see some pretty big numbers.”
The biggest difference in his play this year has been his composure, Josh said. He has played looser, which has translated directly into his performance. Some of that is experience, and some of it is having his father on the sidelines, he said.
“It’s almost more comfortable and relaxing for me as a quarterback to be able to know that there’s that connection, and be able to communicate that way,” Josh said.
Bellingham, in its third consecutive season independent of the NWC, has mostly played teams from outside Whatcom County, including multiple smaller schools.
The Bayhawks beat Blaine, 40-23, on Friday, Oct. 13, led by five touchdown passes from Josh to wide receiver Wyatt Stephan — Bellingham’s first win over a Whatcom County team since March 5, 2021.
“These are all revenge games,” Adam said. “We beat South Whidbey; they crushed us last year. We beat Coupeville; they crushed us last year. We beat Blaine; they crushed us last year.”
Josh currently is weighing multiple college offers, including one from the University of Puget Sound — an NCAA Division III school. Adam and his wife, Stefanie, both played collegiately at UPS (Adam, basketball and baseball; Stefanie, volleyball).
While he hasn’t yet decided what the next step in his football career will be, Josh’s top priority is to be on the field.
“Whatever feels like the best fit and where I can play is where I’m going to end up going,” he added.