SNOHOMISH — There was no secret what Archbishop Murphy was facing Friday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
North Kitsap the past two years ended its season with state playoff losses to the Wildcats. Kitsap entered undefeated and were dedicating this season to a player who tragically died during the offseason. The Vikings weren’t lacking motivation. But the Wildcats were ready.
“I knew it was going to be a great game,” Murphy coach Jerry Jensen said. “(The last two years) that is all motivation for those guys. We knew they were going to come out and be very well prepared. Above that, the kid they lost, they were playing for him. We knew they were going to be emotionally charged.”
The Wildcats took the Vikings’ best shot, came up with critical defensive stops and feasted on big plays throughout to earn a 28-21 thrilling 2A state tournament quarterfinal win over North Kitsap.
Archbishop Murphy’s touchdowns came on a 40-yard run, 35-yard pass, 80-yard fumble return and a 55-yard run. While the Cats displayed their typical flash, the defense time-and-time again stiffened when it needed to.
North Kitsap back Dax Solis, who entered the state matchup with more than 1,700 rushing yards and north of 30 touchdowns, chipped away at Murphy’s defense all night, but the Wildcats forced two field goals under 30 yards and created a red zone turnover that resulted in a Dillon Halpin 80-yard touchdown. No stop was more important that the game-winner, though.
With North Kitsap driving trailing 28-21 with 2:04 to play, the Vikings faced a fourth-and-1 on Murphy’s 7. Instead of going to Solis, who finished with 168 yards on 30 carries, Kitsap ran an option play that was shut down by defensive backs Kyler Gordon and Rwehabura Munyagi for no gain.
“We knew what they are going to do,” said Gordon of the big stop. “We practiced it. We knew all their plays. We just focused and locked in and did what we were supposed to do.”
The Wildcats got one first down and took knees to end the game.
Ray Pimentel led the Cats with 111 rushing yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, while Gordon ran for 94 yards and a score and also caught three passes for 65 yards. Quarterback Victor Gabalis completed 6-of-12 passes for 137 yards and connected with Munyagi for a 35-yard touchdown.
The win advances Archbishop Murphy (11-1) to a state semifinal matchup with Tumwater.
North Kitsap took its opening possession down to Murphy’s 5-yard line where its drive stalled and settled for a 22-yard field goal from kicker Tainui Elkington that gave the Vikings a 3-0 lead with 8:37 to play in the first.
After an opening-series three-and-out, the Wildcats forced a punt and only needed three plays to score their only points of the first half.
Gabalis connected with Gordon for a 29-yard pass play, and after a 3-yard Gordon run, Pimentel took a handoff up the middle, found open space at the second level and maneuvered around Kitsap’s secondary for a 40-yard touchdown run, giving the Wildcats a 7-3 edge with 3:01 to play in the first.
The Vikings responded by leaning on Solis’ bruising running style. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior back ripped off runs of 20, 23 and 19 yards before taking a direct snap and scoring from the Wildcats’ 1-yard line to give North Kitsap a 10-7 lead with 39 seconds to go in the first.
A critical turnover cost Archbishop Murphy on its next drive. The Wildcats moved the ball to the Vikings’ 8, but Aiden Allsop stepped in front of a short Gabalis pass for an interception. The pick resulted in a 12-play, 72-yard drive that ended with a Elkington 29-yard field goal. The score extended Kitsap’s lead to 13-7 with 4:44 to play in the half.
The Wildcats took back the lead with a nine-play, 82-yard scoring drive that ended with a 35-yard touchdown strike from Gabalis to Munyagi. The pass gave Murphy a 14-13 lead with 8:35 to play in the third.
Halpin came up with a huge play during the Vikings’ next possession. After moving the ball from its 36 to Murphy’s 20 using 10 plays, Andrew Blackmore fumbled a quarterback sneak on a third-and-1. Halpin came away with the ball and dashed around the left side untouched for an 80-yard score to put the Wildcats in front 21-13.
“Our guys believe in themselves, and we are never going to quit,” Jensen said. “We left a couple opportunities in the first half, and the second half I think we executed when we had to.”
North Kitsap responded with a 53-yard, eight-play drive capped by a 5-yard touchdown pass from Blackmore to Allsop. Blackmore’s pass was intended for Tyler Sloman but was deflected off his pads and into the arms of Allsop. Blackmore added a two-point conversion on a quarterback scramble to tie the game at 21-21 with 10:45 to play in the fourth.
That set up the latest addition to Gordon’s highlight reel. The senior back took a carry around the left side, got the edge and tip-toed the sideline before cutting back across the field to the right. He outran the Vikings secondary for a 55-yard touchdown run and gave Archbishop Murphy a 28-21 lead with 9:48 to play.
After a lengthy injury delay, North Kitsap methodically marched down to Murphy’s 7-yard line, but on a fourth-and-1, the Wildcats made a crucial stopped, forcing a turnover on downs with 2:04 to play. The Cats got one first down, and took knees to end it.
“The defense showed up when they had to,” Jensen said. “The fumble return was huge, and obviously that last stop and those field goals. All those little things add up at the end of the game. Just hats off to North Kitsap, great team. It was a great game, and we knew it was going to be. Too bad someone had to lose tonight.”