SULTAN — Everywhere you look in the Cascade Conference there is uncertainty.
King’s graduated All-Area Player of the Year Billy Green. Lakewood lost all-purpose star Justin Peterson. And Archbishop Murphy graduated several key players and has a new coach in Jerry Jensen.
In recent years, those three programs have been the class of the conference. But with so many unknowns as the 2013 football season kicks off, could this be the year someone new challenges the perennial favorites for the conference title?
If so, it just might be Sultan. The Turks qualified for the postseason last season and finished 4-7, losing 47-28 in a crossover playoff game to eventual state champion Lynden.
One could make the argument that the Turks were out of their league, falling behind 47-0 by halftime. But Sultan rallied to score 28 unanswered points, forcing the Lions to reinsert their starters after they had been taken out to start the second half. The points might have come against the second unit, but it was the type of performance fourth-year head coach Ben Murphy said his team can build on.
“Our kids didn’t quit,” Murphy said. “I think that is important and that is what our program is going to be about. I think it was a big stepping stone.”
The Turks have navigated several stepping stones in recent years. They’ve increased their win totals every year under Murphy. Last year, they beat Cedarcrest and Granite Falls in close back-to-back games early in the season and blew out South Whidbey and Coupeville in the final two games of the regular season.
“We learned how to win last year,” senior Antonio Rivas said.
In between those two sets of victories were three losses to the traditional powerhouses — and none of the games were close.
With a veteran team and another year of experience, the Turks expect that to change in 2013.
“We don’t want to just go out there and earn respect, we want to win the game,” returning first-team all-league offensive lineman and linebacker Taylor Comfort said.
The Turks have a goal to play in 12 games this season — one more than a year ago — meaning they would qualify for the Class 2A state playoffs.
Comfort figures to play a big role in that effort. He is one of just two players in the league, joining Lakewood’s Dylan Donohue, to return as a first-team all-conference player on both sides of the ball.
“Taylor is the emotional leader,” Murphy said. “He’s kind of shy about it, but he’s the loud, crazy, emotional center of the defense. Kids will follow his lead. He knows that this year everybody is going to look to him. He’s a vocal kid, but he says the right things and he acts the way he talks.”
This year’s senior class is the first to have played all four seasons under Murphy and Comfort has been at the forefront of that class. He moved from fullback to offensive line as a freshman in order to get on the field and has gotten better each year.
“He’s an amazing kid,” Murphy said. “He has those things that football coaches love, but can’t coach. I can teach a kid proper form and technique, but I can’t teach the passion. That’s something that Taylor exudes on the football field.”
The versatility of Rivas will be another weapon for the Turks. He spent time at quarterback last season and will see action there again this season, but more of his time will be spent at defensive back, safety, running back and wide receiver.
Rivas will step aside and let junior Deion Bonilla take the majority of the snaps once Bonilla has enough practices to be eligible.
Murphy said Rivas’ unselfishness, exemplified by his willingness to surrender the QB position for the betterment of the team, is spreading throughout the program.
“If we win, I’m happy,” Rivas said. “If our team does well, I’m happy. I don’t really care about individual stats, I just want to win.”
One reward the Turks won’t see until their first victory is the team’s logo on their new helmets. Not wearing the logo until after the first win of the season has become a tradition in Sultan. Murphy likes the idea of having a reward on the table for his kids to work toward.
In a lot of ways, working for that decal is symbolic of the challenge at hand for the Turks. Even though the team is expected to be better — and perhaps even good enough to make a run at the conference title — it hasn’t won anything yet.
The same goes for beating the league’s traditional powers — the Turks have to do it on the field before they can earn respect.
“It’s not like we’re walking in with any pedigree or a reason (to think) we’re going to be at the top of the conference,” Murphy said. “We have to earn that spot and our kids have worked enough where I think we have, but they’ve got to go out on the field and prove it.”
The teams Sultan has to beat in order to culminate the culture change are the same teams it’s modeled that change after.
“We use those programs as learning tools,” Murphy said. “We watched how Lakewood made that rise. These guys, only being here four years, they haven’t got to see where coach (Dan) Teeter took that program from. But as a coaching staff, some of us have been around long enough where we have seen Teeter bring that program up.
“I definitely use some of those other programs as a model.”
After their first four games, the Turks will see exactly how they stack up against the conference’s historical powers, facing King’s, Lakewood and Archbishop Murphy in consecutive weeks.
“That middle part of the season is a real proving ground for us,” Murphy said.
The Turks are a long way from where the program was when Murphy took over — they won just one game in his first season — but like most who find success, he isn’t satisfied.
“I’m definitely proud of the steps we’ve made, but I don’t think it’s anything to beat my chest about,” Murphy said. “It’s something we can be proud of, but it’s not there yet. I think most coaches tell you the process takes time and we’re all impatient, so I want it to happen faster.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.