The Lynden, Lakewood, Archbishop Murphy, Sedro-Woolley and Liberty-Issaquah high school football teams are each ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press Class 2A state poll.
But when the state playoffs come around, at least two of those teams will be left out.
Such is the cutthroat nature of the 2A Northwest/Sea-King bi-district, which features a handful of talented teams but only three available state berths this season.
“Two top-10 teams in the state are not going to even make the state tournament,” Lakewood coach Dan Teeter said. “So (it’s) definitely a highly competitive district.”
The 2A Northwest/Sea-King bi-district primarily consists of teams from the Northwest District, which is in its second season since implementing a two-tiered football system of competitively balanced Sky and Lake divisions. The bi-district also includes KingCo 2A teams Liberty and Sammamish from the Sea-King District.
The top three finishers in the upper-tier Sky Division — 2A fourth-ranked Lynden, sixth-ranked Lakewood and fifth-ranked Archbishop Murphy — received byes for this week’s first-round bi-district playoff games and will host winner-to-state contests next week.
The bottom three finishers in the six-team Sky Division host first-round bi-district playoff games Friday night. They face the bi-district’s top three non-Sky Division teams, which are determined by a Ratings Percentage Index.
In Friday’s opening-round bi-district playoff matchups, 2A ninth-ranked Sedro-Woolley hosts Cedarcrest, Burlington-Edison hosts Sehome and Blaine hosts 10th-ranked Liberty. The winners advance to next week’s winner-to-state round, where they will face the Sky Division’s top three teams for spots in the 16-team 2A state playoffs.
There’s a definite chance that two of those three winner-to-state contests could pit a pair of top-10 state-ranked teams against each other.
“To get to state, (you’re) playing state-level competition,” Teeter said.
The 2A Northwest/Sea-King bi-district alternates each year between four and three state berths. The battle for state spots is particularly intense in a three-berth year like this one, given how many traditionally strong programs are in this bi-district.
Over the past 13 seasons, Lynden, Archbishop Murphy, Sedro-Woolley and Burlington-Edison have combined for 21 state semifinal trips, 13 state-title game appearances and eight state championships.
And in three of the past eight seasons, the 2A state title game has pitted two of the bi-district’s teams against each other. Lynden and Archbishop Murphy squared off for the 2011 state crown, Sedro-Woolley and Lynden met in the 2014 title game and Archbishop Murphy faced Liberty for the 2016 championship.
“I definitely have been a firm believer all year that the Sky Division is probably the best 2A conference — top to bottom — in the state,” Archbishop Murphy coach Mark Leone said. “There’s a lot of great leagues out there, but ours really gives you a playoff game every week, it feels like, especially with the top four teams.
“And as a bi-district as a whole, once you start adding in programs like Liberty and Sehome, you really see the depth.”
The Sky Division earned a pair of signature non-league victories over elite 2A teams earlier this season, with Archbishop Murphy beating second-ranked Hockinson and Lynden defeating third-ranked Steilacoom. Archbishop Murphy’s victory over Hockinson snapped the two-time defending state champions’ 28-game win streak.
And over the past five weeks, the Sky Division’s top four teams have traded blows with one another throughout the highly competitive conference slate.
This trio of results perhaps best illustrates the parity among those top teams: Lakewood shut out Sedro-Woolley 27-0, Sedro-Woolley beat Lynden 14-7 and Lynden rolled to a 37-6 win over Lakewood.
“It’s one of those leagues where if you don’t bring your best game every week, … then you’re going to lose,” Leone said. “There’s not much room for error.”
“You’ve gotta play at a very high level just to get a league win,” Lynden coach Blake VanDalen said.
When the dust settled following the conclusion of Sky Division play last week, the league’s top four teams were separated by just one game in the standings.
Lynden and Lakewood finished tied atop the Sky Division with 4-1 league records, with the Lions claiming the league title and top seed by virtue of their head-to-head victory over the Cougars. Archbishop Murphy and Sedro-Woolley finished tied for third place at 3-2, with the Wildcats claiming the league’s No. 3 seed and final first-round bye because of their head-to-head victory over the Cubs last week.
“Week in, week out — especially amongst the top four teams in the Sky Division this year — any team can beat any other team,” Teeter said. “And if you’re kind of off — if you’re not having your best game — they could put you away pretty convincingly.”
While the Sky Division teams and Liberty receive the most attention in this talent-laden bi-district, Sehome showed last season that Lake Division teams shouldn’t be overlooked. In last year’s winner-to-state round, Lake Division co-champion Sehome delivered a shocking 37-9 upset of perennial power Archbishop Murphy, which entered as the Sky Division’s No. 2 seed.
It’s undoubtedly an arduous path to state for teams in this bi-district. But for the three teams that make it through, the silver lining is they will be plenty battle-tested heading into the state playoffs.
“The major bonus of our league is it prepares you really well for the state playoffs,” Leone said. “Your kids have already got that mindset of being focused for multiple weeks in a row. … You truly have to get better every week, and that’s what you have to do to win a state championship.”