No, the Archbishop Murphy High School football team wasn’t holding anything back on Saturday afternoon at the Tacoma Dome.
That was quite clear.
The top-ranked Wildcats, in completing a perfect season, spun off eight touchdowns in the Class 2A state championship game, dismantling eighth-ranked Liberty of Issaquah, 56-14.
“They wanted to come out and prove it — that they’re the best team in the state,” Archbishop Murphy coach Jerry Jensen said. “We’ll never know that for sure, but they showed today they’re a pretty good football team.”
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Perhaps Archbishop Murphy’s true standing is partially shadowed by its schedule, which was shortened to four regular-season games after five of its Cascade Conference opponents elected to forfeit.
Perhaps the program would better know how dominant this group was if it had the opportunity to play state-caliber schools in the 4A and 3A classifications, considering the Wildcats averaged 51.4 points per game this season.
Whatever the reason, Archbishop Murphy — which has advanced to the state playoffs 12 of the past 15 years, and has won three titles in that span, including two in the 1A classification — put the exclamation point on a highly publicized season.
The program held a news conference in October after South Whidbey, Sultan and Granite Falls forfeited, citing issues with depth and safety.
It gained national attention as the high school football team nobody wanted to play, and endured the frustration of Cedar Park Christian and Cedarcrest also opting to forfeit.
“Sometimes you’re going to get knocked down,” Jensen said. “Sometimes you don’t have control over the events that you’re faced with. You just keep plugging away and it’ll turn, and good things will happen.”
Like cementing a place in 2A state football history, and breaking a series of Gridiron Classic records along the way.
The Wildcats scored on the second play from scrimmage when Connor Johnson found Ray Pimentel for a seemingly effortless 60-yard touchdown.
They scored five touchdowns before Liberty answered on a 2-yard run by Reily Larson at the end of the first half to make it 35-7.
And the Patriots didn’t score again until long after the running clock was ignited, on a 10-yard TD pass from Austin Regis to Alex Olague in the closing minutes.
In between, the Wildcats consistently pulled off big plays to pull away.
Johnson finished 10 of 12 passing for 356 yards and five TDs, tying the state title game record for TD scoring passes.
After connecting with Pimentel, Johnson tossed two TD passes apiece to Anfernee Gurley (51 and 69 yards) and Kyler Gordon (64 and 50 yards).
“Those plays just happened,” Johnson said. “We didn’t have any plans of running the ball heavily, passing the ball heavily. Those plays just happened.”
Typically a run-first offense, Archbishop Murphy favored the pass against Liberty, finishing with 415 total yards on offense (359 passing, 56 rushing).
Collin Montez added TD runs of 5 and 9 yards, and Gordon broke the record for longest fumble recovery with a 60-yard TD return that gave the Wildcats a 49-point advantage in the fourth. Ryan Henderson’s eight PATs broke another record.
“It’s hard through the course of the season when you’re up so big early,” Jensen said. “You try to be respectful and you don’t want to run up the score. In a setting like this, you just got to kind of go for broke.”
Though a spectacle to behold, the Wildcats’ margin of victory this season has raised questions about competitive balance throughout the state.
WIAA Executive Director Mike Colbrese said Saturday at the Tacoma Dome that member schools are asking for change more than in the past, and while Archbishop Murphy isn’t the cause, this case might be a tipping point.
Said Colbrese: “I think the important thing I want to get across is there are things getting done, the WIAA is going to be a resource, we have at least three districts that will have meetings about it, and we will have bigger discussions about competitive balance.
“It will initially be based on rescheduling with the hope of making changes as early as next fall, and it could impact other sports.”
Colbrese said the WIAA will look for solutions to alleviate forfeits across the state.
“Nobody on either side is a winner when kids can’t play a ballgame that they should have been able to play,” Colbrese said. “Whether you are wearing the black and red of Archbishop Murphy, or the black and orange of Granite Falls, the kids lose every time.”
Though, for the Wildcats, those woes seemed far from thought after Saturday’s win. It was all part of the journey, Johnson said.
“It just makes everything worth it,” Johnson said. “There’s no other feeling like the feeling I have right now. It’s amazing.”
“These kids have seen the program at the bottom, and worked hard, and fought tooth and nail to get back where they are now,” Jensen said. “There have been some setbacks along the way, but these guys kept fighting. An extremely resilient group that was focused and kept going.”
No. 1 Archbishop Murphy 21 14 14 7_56
No. 8 Liberty 0 7 0 7_14
A – Ray Pimentel 60 pass from Connor Johnson (Ryan Henderson kick)
A – Collin Montez 5 run (Henderson kick)
A – Anfernee Gurley 51 pass from Johnson (Henderson kick)
A – Montez 9 run (Henderson kick)
A – Kyler Gordon 64 pass from Johnson (Henderson kick)
L – Reily Larson 2 run (Holden Kooiker kick)
A – Gordon 50 pass from Johnson (Henderson kick)
A – Gurley 69 pass from Johnson (Henderson kick)
A – Gordon 60 fumble recovery (Henderson kick)
L – Alex Olague 10 pass from Austin Regis (Kooiker kick)