Hanging in the hallway just outside the coaches’ office at Archbishop Murphy High School are team photos of the 2002 and 2003 Wildcats football teams — the only state championship teams in school history.
A third photo could be added soon if the top-ranked Wildcats can defeat Liberty of Issaquah for the 2A state championship on Saturday at the Tacoma Dome.
“We were actually looking at those the other day when we had our pregame meal and I said, ‘We need to put another one of those up there. It’s been a while,’ ” Archbishop Murphy coach Jerry Jensen said. “(The players are) aware of the history, we don’t bring it up too much anymore because it’s been so long ago. But it is important to them. They understand the history here.”
Archbishop Murphy’s two titles came when the team was a 1A school and led by legendary coach Terry Ennis. The Wildcats moved up to 2A in 2004 and have had three previous chances at a 2A title, but they came up short each time.
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But there’s a growing sentiment that Archbishop Murphy might not just be the best team in 2A this year — but maybe the entire state in any classification.
You can see why, considering what it has done to its opponents.
Five of Archbishop Murphy’s 13 victories this season came via forfeits from teams in its own league, but when the undefeated Wildcats did get to take the field they were dominant. In the eight games the Wildcats played, they outscored opponents, 407-30.
The Wildcats opened the season facing 4A Issaquah, which was a state playoff team a year ago. Archbishop Murphy won 73-0, which was the score at halftime.
The following week, the Wildcats played 3A Bishop Blanchet, a state semifinalist from a year ago. The result was similar, this time they won 59-0.
Next up was their first league game of the season, a matchup against King’s, last year’s 1A state runner-up. It was their biggest challenge to date, and the Wildcats won, 38-0.
“I think it gives these kids something to hang their hat on a little bit as far as this community goes,” Jensen said. “To be able to let people know, potentially, small schools can play with bigger schools in the right situation. There’s a lot of that ‘Oh, you’re 2A’ stuff, and some of these boys take a little offense to that.”
The week following the victory over King’s, the dialogue about Archbishop Murphy’s season changed dramatically when 1A South Whidbey decided to forfeit, citing low turnout numbers and a concern for player safety.
It was only the beginning.
The remaining four Cascade Conference teams on the Wildcats’ schedule, including 1A Sultan — which was 4-0 at the time — chose to forfeit their games to Archbishop Murphy. In six weeks the Wildcats played one game, a 48-0 nonconference win over 2A Olympic.
Keeping the team focused during what eventually became national news — a team so dominant that no one wanted to play it — was a challenge.
“Our goal wasn’t to go beat up on the teams in our conference, our goal was bigger than that,” Jensen said. “Regardless of what happened in conference, we still had that goal to attain. We looked to that. It was a little trying at times to try to keep their focus through those four or five weeks, but to their credit they took advantage of those weeks and spent time in the classroom and spent time lifting weights.
“They used it appropriately.”
Archbishop Murphy even held a news conference to address why it wasn’t playing. Shortly afterward, national and international news outlets — including BBC News, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Forbes and even a late night talk show — were picking up the story.
“I’m really proud of my guys the way that we’ve stuck together as a team and the way that we’ve stayed focused,” said Anfernee Gurley, a senior wide receiver and defensive back. “We never got complacent. It is hard to stay focused when you’ve got the media here every day and you’ve got cameras on campus, but we really kept our mind on that one goal and that was to get here to that state championship and win it.”
With several talented seniors on the team, Jensen had to convince many of his players — those with the goal of going on to play in college — that the forfeits would not impact their recruiting prospects.
“You have kids that their ultimate goal is to play college football,” Jensen said. “They need stats and they need film and they felt like those things were going to be impacted by these forfeits. … It was a lot of letting these guys know that (college) coaches aren’t going to evaluate you against some of the weaker talent. They want to see you playing good games.”
Seniors such as defensive lineman Jackson Yost and Gurley helped to keep the rest of the team on task during the string of forfeits.
“When we set our goal for the championship, we kept our eyes on that,” Yost said. “No matter what happened, forfeits or not, we just had to do whatever it took to get us back to that point, whether that is making sure everyone is academically eligible or just staying in the weight room and working out, even going to practice with no games — just making sure we’re staying on track to get to where we need to get to.”
The Wildcats entered the postseason with a record of 9-0, but had actually played only four games. The time off didn’t seem to matter — Archbishop Murphy reeled off four straight postseason wins, outscoring opponents, 189-30, in the process, to reach the state championship game.
Now, after a roller-coaster season, the Wildcats are one win away from doing what they set out to do before any of the distractions — win a state championship.
And they certainly aren’t going to lose focus now.
“Anybody can beat anybody, and these kids understand that,” Jensen said. “Liberty is a good football team. If we make a bunch of mistakes and don’t play to our ability, Liberty will beat us.”