Last season, Connor Clark watched Tumwater High School’s seemingly annual meeting with Archbishop Murphy from the stands.
He watched the two powerhouse programs duke it out for two quarters in the Class 2A quarterfinals. Then, like everyone else, saw two interception returns ignite the Wildcats in the second half.
They scored five times in the final two quarters, shut out the T-Birds in the second half, and ran away with a 48-10 win to end Tumwater’s season.
This season Clark, a senior transfer from Olympia, will be on the field when the T-Birds meet the defending state champions at noon Saturday at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup.
“I want the competition,” Clark said. “That’s what I love. I don’t ever want to stop playing football.
“It’s awesome being down to just a few teams left, and knowing you’re one of them.”
Clark, an Olympian All-Area selection at defensive back, has spent plenty of time studying the top-ranked Wildcats on film this week.
He’s keyed in on players like running back Ray Pimentel (200 carries, 2,080 yards, 28 TDs) and wide receiver Kyler Gordon (1,367 offensive yards, 18 total TDs).
“They’re physical, they’re pretty big,” Clark said. “But as long as we do our jobs, I think we’ll be fine.”
Clark is a seasoned cornerback, and likely one of the players the second-ranked T-Birds will look to the most against Archbishop Murphy’s explosive offense.
“He’s athletic and he’s strong, so he can reroute guys and he’s got the speed to run with them,” Tumwater coach Bill Beattie said.
“But, more importantly, he’s got the experience. He played in the 4A SPSL last year, and he played in the 4A Narrows as a sophomore. He’s seen big-time kids.”
Beattie, who took over at Tumwater this season after spending 22 years at Olympia, and coached Clark there, said Clark is up to the challenge.
He matched up well against Emerald Ridge’s Andrew Boston (now at Eastern Washington University) last season as a junior, Beattie said.
While at Olympia, Clark played against Division I recruits like Sumner’s Connor Wedington (now at Stanford) and Graham Kapowsin quarterback Dylan Morris (committed to Washington).
“I think from a confidence standpoint, there’s nothing that unnerves him,” Beattie said. “I think you see that. There’s no substitute for experience.”
It was clear early on when Clark arrived at Tumwater that he’d make an impact, defensive coordinator Tim Otton said.
“Every time he got out there he was making plays,” Otton said. “We knew he was going to be a big piece of what we were going to try to do this year on defense.”
Otton said he noticed Clark’s speed and ball skills right away. Clark has attended several individual camps at Idaho, Montana and Central Washington to keep himself sharp.
He works a lot of time in the weight room, Beattie said, and continues to excel during practices.
“Experience and practice always helps,” Clark said. “Our scout teams do a good job of running (the opposing team’s) routes and imaging their teams. It gives us a good idea of what they like to run.”
Clark has recoreded 36 tackles (six for losses) and five interceptions. Two of those, he returned for touchdowns.
And all in just his second season as a defensive back. Clark was a linebacker growing up, until Beattie moved him to the secondary his junior season.
“Immediately he’s the starting corner,” Beattie said. “As a coach, you’re trying to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together. That’s a piece that fit.
“To see it all come together for him, that’s what’s really exciting.”
Otton realized just how essential Clark was when Tumwater played Steilacoom for the first time in September.
Steilacoom freshman Emeka Egbuka — who later went on to tie the program’s single-season receiving touchdowns record with 13 — was lighting up Tumwater’s defense in the first half.
“We ended up for the first time this year saying, ‘Connor, you’ve got (Egbuka) wherever he goes,’ ” Otton said. “He didn’t do anything in the second half.
“That’s where I go, well, we’ve got a lockdown guy, and someone who will accept that type of challenge.”
Clark has consistently risen to the occasion.
In last week’s quarterfinals meting with Steilacoom, he sealed a win with an interception, preventing the Sentinels from kindling a late rally.
Clark is also a heavy contributor on offense, rushing for 553 yards on 61 carries and 15 touchdowns. He has another 94-yard kickoff return for a score.
“I like to run the ball and get the ball, but defense is more of a challenge and I like that aspect of it,” Clark said.
In every phase, Clark has the gear to take the ball all the way to the end zone, Beattie said.
And that’s exactly what the T-Birds (10-2) will need against Archbishop Murphy (11-1).
“We want our kids to understand what the highest level in the state of Washington can provide, and go play those teams,” Beattie said.
2A STATE SEMIFINALS
NO. 1 ARCHBISHOP MURPHY (11-1) VS. NO. 2 TUMWATER (10-2)
Noon Saturday, Sparks Stadium, Puyallup
About the Wildcats: Archbishop Murphy hasn’t lost a game in 2A since the 2015 semifinals — when the Wildcats lost to Tumwater in a thriller, 24-21. Since then, ATM has blown by just about everyone. North Kitsap played the Wildcats close last week in the quarterfinals, losing by a single TD, and the T-Birds figure to be ATM’s toughest test this season. But, the Wildcats still have weapons everywhere, led by explosive RB Ray Pimentel (200 carries, 2,080 yards, 28 TDs) and WR Kyler Gordon (30 receptions, 838 yards; 37 carries, 529 yards; 18 total TDs).
About the T-Birds: Last season’s loss to the Wildcats in the quarterfinals, 48-10, left a sour taste. Especially considering the T-Birds trailed by only a TD until QB Noah Andrews got hurt. Tumwater coach Sid Otton retired after that game as the winningest high school football coach in state history. Bill Beattie took over the staff the following spring, and has the 2A EvCo champions in the semifinals for the fifth time in six seasons. Tumwater will look to sophomore RB Dylan Paine (258 carries, 1,580 yards, 24 TDs) to keep the offense moving, and DB Connor Clark (five interceptions) will be key in trying to shut down ATM’s big threats.
Olympian pick: Archbishop Murphy, 29-21.