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Lummi Nation boys hoops pursuing state title as Class 1B’s top team

Whatcom County's smallest school fueled by tight-knit, passionate community

The Lummi Nation bench celebrates a 3-pointer Tuesday, Jan 30 during the Blackhawks' 73-47 win over Tulalip Heritage. Lummi Nation is currently the top-ranked team in Class 1B, Washington's smallest classification. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)
By Connor J. Benintendi Sports Editor

Nearly a decade ago, the Lummi Nation School boys basketball team capped off a perfect season with a 27-0 record and its first Class 1B state championship.

Now the team, helmed by 19-year head coach Jerome Toby, is on the cusp of another remarkable season that mirrors the title-winning campaign in 2015.

The Blackhawks’ current surge began in the 2018-19 season and has included four straight trips to state and a pair of top-five finishes.

The team is on a 16-game winstreak dating back to December. The Blackhawks (16-1, 11-0 Northwest 1B League) lost their first game of the season to La Conner, but have since beaten all their opponents by an average of 37.9 points per game.

Lummi Nation head coach Jerome Toby talks to the Blackhawks during a timeout. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)

The Blackhawks are currently ranked No. 1 in the state among 1B schools by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s RPI Rankings, which heavily influence state tournament seeding.

But, with a winning culture already established, Toby said his team is focused on the journey and embracing the community that continues to rally around players and coaches.

“Coming from a tribal community, our tribal members have a lot of pride in their youth,” Toby said. “Our community loves the Blackhawks, and we play hard for them.”

‘We’re all family’

The Lummi Nation School is the smallest — by classification and enrollment — in Whatcom County at Class 1B, which is also the smallest classification in the state (defined as 1–104 students enrolled in grades 9–11).

According to 2023–24 school year data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, 125 students are enrolled in grades 9–12 at Lummi and 76 male students are eligible for boys varsity athletics. 

Lummi Nation sophomore guard Jerome Toby, the head coach’s son, holds up three fingers and looks to his bench after sinking a triple and getting fouled. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)

Among public high schools in the county with athletics programs, Mount Baker is the next smallest with 494 students and 294 eligible for boys varsity athletics. Mount Baker competes in the 1A classification, two levels above Lummi Nation.

Despite the small pool to draw from, Toby said he believes kids growing up in the area are aspiring to be Blackhawks. His players agree.

“Everyone wants to play with the Blackhawks growing up at Lummi Nation,” senior forward Desmond Bailey said. “We haven’t had a problem filling out the roster. The group we have right now has been playing together since we were in, like, fourth and fifth grade.”

But it hasn’t always been that way, Toby said. Prospective players may end up attending other, larger schools in the county by the time they reach high school.

“It’s taken some time for our kids to say proudly that they’re Blackhawks. I think it’s been a long time coming where more of our tribal kids want to stay home and play for the Lummi Nation Blackhawks and attend Lummi School,” Toby added. “I’m proud to be their coach, and I’m hoping more of our kids do play for our community school.”

Lummi Nation senior guard Landon Day takes a 3-pointer. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)

Those who do stay are embraced by the community, the coaches and the players who came before them. Toby, now 45, began as head coach when he was only 25.

“That’s one thing that’s special about our small community,” Toby said, “we’re all family.”

Toby’s son, also named Jerome Toby, is a sophomore on the team and said it’s always been his dream to play for his dad. Duncan Toby, the family’s eldest son, also played for Lummi Nation and graduated in 2022.

“It creates great memories for father and son, and I’ve enjoyed it,” said Jerome, the coach. “Whether you’re having success or whether you’re not, you’re just cherishing those bus rides, those team meals, the travel, the state tournaments.”

Lummi Nation senior guard Mathias Johnson puts in a layup between all five Tulalip Heritage defenders. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)

Being a 1B school presents other challenges, including extended travel.

Member schools in the Northwest 1B League are located as far south as Shoreline (Shoreline Christian School), and as far west as Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands (Lopez High School) — requiring a ferry.

While Bellingham schools, for example, have two in-city rivals that are mere minutes away, Lummi Nation players routinely have full days of travel for night-time games.  When traveling to a game against one of the island teams, the Blackhawks will sometimes leave campus in the morning and not return until midnight after a 5:30 p.m. game.

“It’s a long day, but for us, we’re people of the water — we come from a commercial fishing village,” said the elder Jerome. “We enjoy getting out there because that’s our fishing grounds; that’s our commercial crabbing and everything.”

The luxury of depth

The current Lummi Nation team has thrived on its roster depth, even with the smaller player pool, and the players’ willingness to get everyone involved. Bailey said he has faith in all of his teammates to make crucial plays and decisions.

Jerome, the coach, said it took time for players to buy in and trust the system he employed this season, which emphasizes mid-game adjustments to keep the ball in the hands of whichever player is having the best night — a philosophy to maximize the team’s talent.

Lummi Nation junior forward Karson Revey gets fouled as he attempts a layup. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)

“Our identity is unselfishness and hustle, and just playing with a lot of intensity,” Bailey said. “Our whole team can score at will, but it’s our unselfishness that makes us so successful.”

Assuming Lummi Nation doesn’t have its season cut short in districts or regionals, it has a good chance to be the first seed in the 1B state tournament, which would be its highest state seed since the team won the championship.

“Everybody wants to bring home that gold ball,” said Jerome, the coach. “But I told the boys that that’s the destination — let’s improve on something each and every day.”

Bailey and Jerome, the son, have quietly and effectively stepped into leadership roles for the team. Bailey is the Blackhawks’ senior captain.

“They both lead kind of quietly by example, by showing up, working hard and the boys just tend to follow those two,” said the elder Jerome.

Lummi Nation head coach Jerome Toby and the Blackhawk bench look on. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)

He added it’s a “special group” overall that is trying to take this season one game at a time. With the Lummi Nation community behind them, the Blackhawks are now in the postseason during what will already go down as a historic campaign.

The 1B District 1 tournament kicked off on Thursday, Feb. 1 with play-ins, and the Blackhawks beat Shoreline Christian in their first-round district game, 74-36. They will host Orcas Island at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 6 in the 1B District 1 semifinals at Lummi Nation School.

“We don’t know where we’re going to end up,” said Jerome, the coach, “but we know if we work hard and we stay dedicated and committed good things could be in store for us.”

Connor J. Benintendi is CDN’s sports editor; reach him at connorbenintendi@cascadiadaily.com; 360-922-3090 ext. 104.

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