When Archbishop Murphy’s football team started out 2-2, with two consecutive conference losses in which they were outscored 89-19, it would have been easy for the Wildcats to panic.
Instead, the seniors stepped up to rally their team and pushed to salvage their season. The Wildcats responded with a six-game winning streak going into tonight’s 2A state tournament quarterfinals game against Tumwater.
“I don’t think there’s a secret to Archbishop Murphy football. It comes down to the brotherhood,” coach Mike Pluschke said. “These seniors have been together for four years at a small school. When things got tough, these guys have banded together for a common goal.”
That goal is a deep playoff push for the fifth consecutive year. The seniors are in their fourth state tournament while at Murphy, the second group — after last year’s seniors — to perform such a feat.
The accomplishment by this year’s group of seniors might be even more impressive considering all the team had to overcome, including a controversial offseason coaching change along with two more coaching changes before the fifth week of the season.
“It’s been awesome with these senior guys,” quarterback Camden Buchanan said. “It’s been great. With our bond and brotherhood, we really came together.”
Pluschke singled out Buchanan, running backs Ricky Gordan, Steven Kane and Hans VanderWel and linemen Ryan Kouchakji and Dakota Creed for their team-building efforts this season.
“Those guys have really been the glue,” Pluschke said. “The guys that have been very positive, focused on the task at hand and rallying the troops. They’re all very solid kids and young men who want to be successful and finish this year the right way and finish the way they started four years ago.”
After a 49-0 loss to Lakewood, then-head coach Bill Marsh left the program. His successor, Michael Allison, was placed on administrative leave days later when a prior incident from his time coaching in Oregon was brought to Archbishop Murphy’s attention.
The remaining coaches, including Pluschke, had a bye week to regroup before an Oct. 5 Cascade Conference showdown with South Whidbey which, at 1-2, had a better conference record than the Wildcats. Pluschke singled out a particular moment in that game when things seemed to click for the Wildcats.
“I want to say it was halfway through the second quarter (against) South Whidbey when the kids started smiling again playing football,” Pluschke said. “I think that’s the point when we realized if we do what we could do and didn’t turn the ball over, we always give ourselves a shot to win.”
The Wildcats, who have placed second in 2A in the past two state tournaments, won 46-15.
“I definitely think that week was a big week for us,” Kouchakji said. “We had to come out and get a win. We were fighting for our confidence and we started to get it back.”
The players agreed that the bye week, which gave the Wildcats two weeks between the end of the Lakewood game and the start of the South Whidbey game, was important because it gave the team a chance to regroup and refocus after everything that had happened both on and off the field.
“We took the bye week to get back to Archbishop Murphy football,” Creed said.
The game, which was Murphy’s homecoming game, was particularly memorable to Buchanan, who is from South Whidbey and was playing against some of his friends.
“That’s a big game,” Buchanan said. “It’s one of those important games for me.”
And the Wildcats didn’t stop after that. Archbishop Murphy continued to win, including playoff games against Squalicum and Bremerton, by an average margin of about 29 points.
“It’s been a much different football team,” Gordan said. “We played harder. We’re stronger as a team.”
VanderWel said it wasn’t so much pride that was on the line as much as it was the senior players wanting to do their best for each other. That in turn encouraged the younger players to step up their game.
“I don’t think we were playing to prove we we’re good,” VanderWel said. “Just playing for each other. I think that continued into other games.”
It’s continued for the Wildcats in the playoffs, too. Last Friday, senior running back Alex Galgano rushed for 300 yards and four touchdowns as Murphy beat Bremerton 45-21. The win set up tonight’s showdown against Tumwater, which is the fourth-ranked 2A team in the state by Maxpreps.com.
The Thunderbirds feature a high-scoring offense that’s beaten playoff teams such as No. 2 Capital, W.F. West, Timberline and North Thurston in the regular season.
“This is by far one of the best football teams that we’ve seen on film since we played King’s and Lakewood,” Pluschke said. “Playing a team that’s been as reputable as they’ve been over the last 10 years — they’re just phenomenal in what they do. They’ve got some athletes in the right spots. We’re thinking this is going to be the ultimate test for us.”
This is the third consecutive season the two teams have met in the postseason. Tumwater won the first matchup in the 2010 state title game, while Murphy, which is ranked seventh in the Maxpreps.com poll, got a little revenge knocking Tumwater out of the playoffs last year in the state tournament’s first round.
“We know who they are,” Gordon said. “We know what we have to do to get it done. It’s definitely going to be an all-four-quarters kind of game. It will be a battle the whole way.”
Archbishop Murphy isn’t too concerned with going on the road. They see it as a chance to bond and hang out with their teammates before the big game.
“I think we do well on the road,” VanderWel said. “We’re not really focused on where we are.”
Being on the road also brings some perks the Wildcats just don’t get at Terry Ennis Stadium.
“We get to wear our white jerseys,” Creed said. “And I love our white jerseys.”
The Wildcats hope to advance to next weekend’s state semifinals and preserve a tradition that the seniors have participated in their first three years at Archbishop Murphy: the beloved Thanksgiving morning practice.
“We love practicing on Thanksgiving,” Gordan said. “It’s first thing in the morning. Then we go home and watch some football.”