LAKE STEVENS — Even in the sometimes lopsided world of high school sports, one football score last month stood apart.
Lake Stevens 91, Jackson 6.
On social media, it elicited a firestorm of emotions.
Some accused Lake Stevens, a state championship contender, of running up the score on Jackson High School, a program that eked out a 2-8 record this year, with those two wins coming by a grand total of 2 points.
“The sportsmanship of the Lake Stevens football program should be questioned? A 91-6 victory in a high school football game is absurd,” read one tweet directed at The Daily Herald’s @HeraldNetPreps account.
Others defended the Vikings, noting they eased up after halftime.
“They scored 14 points in the second half. Should they kneel 3 times and punt?” one countered.
Year after year, in all high school sports, blowouts spark a visceral reaction among parents, students and fans.
When is it poor sportsmanship versus competing to the end?
When is it teaching players to never quit?
When is it padding stats?
What’s the “right” way to navigate a blowout, when we’re talking about athletes who are still kids?
There are no easy answers.
‘Should they kneel?’
This month, high school football powerhouses have been gearing up for state championship games that figure to be highly competitive. One of those teams is Lake Stevens, who will face Graham-Kapowsin on Saturday for the Class 4A title. Along the way, there were bound to be a few matchups with weaker opponents, where the final score makes people go, “Oof.”
Examples abound across Snohomish County athletics.
Girls basketball: Glacier Peak 53, Mariner 2.
Boys basketball: Sultan 81, Granite Falls 26.
Girls soccer: Archbishop Murphy 9, Sammamish 0.
Softball: Jackson 19, North Creek 0.
And, of course: Lake Stevens 91, Jackson 6.
Opinions vary on how to navigate these games, when teams are clearly mismatched from the opening whistle.
In extreme cases, is it better for student-athletes to just not play?
It’s a debate we’ve seen in Snohomish County before.
In 2016, fearing for player safety, five schools canceled football games with Archbishop Murphy, a small private school in Everett. At the time, the Wildcats played in a conference made of mostly public 1A/2A schools, many of which saw declining participation in football.
Archbishop Murphy, meanwhile, was in the midst of an influx of top-level talent. In three games before the forfeits, the private Catholic school outscored opponents 170-0.
Again, in October, the Vikings’ 85-point win polarized people.
“Pretty brutal. That is way over the line. No need to (embarrass) Jackson like that,” read one comment on Twitter.
“You don’t want to see that kind of score but after you replace as many players as possible and start only running the ball what else is there you can do?” wrote another. “If you followed the game you’d know the score could have been worse.”
Dr. Frank Smoll, a sports psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, has researched coaching behaviors in youth sports and the psychological effects of competition on children.
“In general, the sporting experience can have lifelong impacts,” Smoll said. “I strongly doubt that any single game is going to affect a youngster, but if you’re constantly losing, that’s going to leave its mark.”
Some youth leagues have a mercy rule, in which a game is declared over after a certain scoring margin. On the other hand, dominant teams work hard to be dominant, and they deserve to “enjoy the fruits of their efforts,” Smoll said.
“You don’t want to distort the competitive nature of sports,” he said.
And sometimes, losing can have benefits, Smoll argued. Coaches and parents need to be realistic.
“Losing sucks,” Smoll said. “That has to be acknowledged, and children have to be allowed to experience the emotional letdown of a loss. So what I’m saying is that coaches and parent shouldn’t sugarcoat it. … Let the kids identify the feelings of the disappointment, because that’s something that’s part of life.”
‘You can’t get mad’
At the high school level, when a team is up big, Jackson football coach Mason Siddick said, there is proper coaching etiquette.
“I think that there is a way in which you have to adjust your play calling or your approach,” he said. “But at the end of the day, too, even when you do that and teams aren’t executing, or whatever, that’s not on the coach. You can’t get mad at a coach on another team if your team is missing tackles.”
Glacier Peak girls basketball coach Brian Hill has been on both ends of some particularly lopsided games — the winning side in recent years with the Grizzlies, and the losing side when he was the girls coach at Hazen from 2003 to 2005.
When the score starts getting out of hand, Hill said, he makes adjustments.
Instead of going for a steal, he’ll direct his players to focus on playing fundamental defense and staying in front of the opponent.
Instead of pushing forward on a fast break, he’ll have them walk the ball up the court and let the defense get set.
And then, he’ll have them run down the shot clock and “try to work on some of the plays that we’re not very good at.”
“It’s hard to tell the kids not to score, because that’s part of the game,” Hill said. “So we’re still trying to score, but we don’t have to do it in 10 seconds. We can work the clock down and try to … work on some fundamental things.”
One recent high school football blowout in Southern California made national news — and a punchline in a “Saturday Night Live” joke — when Inglewood High School finished off the game with a 2-point conversion.
“A high school principal has apologized for unsportsmanlike conduct of the school’s football team after they beat another team 106 to zero,” comedian Colin Jost said in his monotone newscaster’s voice. “‘Apology accepted,’ said the (New York) Jets.”
The Lake Stevens-Jackson game had a much different storyline.
After leading 77-0 at halftime, the Vikings’ scoring slowed — with seven of their second-half points coming on a defensive score. They threw 10 passes all game, and just one in the second half. Star running back Jayden Limar carried the ball just 10 times. And 42 of the Vikings’ points were either entirely or mostly a product of their defense and special teams.
Siddick said he doesn’t hold any ill will toward Lake Stevens.
“I lean more on the side of no,” the third-year Jackson coach said when asked if he thought the Vikings were running up the score.
On the other hand, there were “definitely a couple of (play) calls that were unnecessary.”
“Like when they’re up (63-0) and their star wide receiver hasn’t really caught anything all game long, and we have a (junior varsity) corner lined up on him, and they run him for a touchdown (pass)?” Siddick said. “That’s unnecessary.”
But 28 points came from two pick-sixes — interceptions run back for touchdowns — and two punt returns that turned into touchdowns.
“That’s 28 points right there that we handed them,” Siddick said. “And a lot of their touchdowns came from missed tackles. That’s not (their coach’s) fault. That’s our fault on our execution. So we’ve gotta clean up our stuff and get better.”
Lake Stevens coach Tom Tri and his perennial powerhouse program are well versed in dealing with lopsided games. Since the start of the 2015 season, the eight-time defending Wesco 4A champion Vikings have won 34 of their 78 games by at least 40 points.
In Lake Stevens blowouts The Daily Herald has covered, the Vikings have put in their backups once the outcome is no longer in doubt.
“We would never intentionally run the score up or disrespect another team,” said Tri, who’s in his 17th season at the helm. “That’s not ever been who we are. … We would never intentionally do that to any team, because that doesn’t help either side (and) that doesn’t help the sport.”
‘How do you respond?’
Sometimes a drubbing is just the reality of high school sports. When a rebuilding program gets pitted against a longtime state stalwart, that often results in crooked numbers on the scoreboard.
The hope of coaches and parents is that rather than being a discouragement, situations like those can teach kids to persevere when faced with adversity, on or off the field.
“Football is a lot like life,” Siddick said. “Sometimes life comes and beats you up, even when you think it’s not fair or you’re not ready for it or whatever. Then, it’s how do you respond? We talk to our kids about it. The one thing that we can control 100 percent of the time is our response.”
“There’s always lessons to be learned from losing,” Siddick added, “and we just have to learn from those.”
Dr. Smoll echoed that sentiment.
“Sport is an educational medium,” he said. “… In a fairly non-threatening environment, kids can be exposed to a lot of challenges that include a lot of pressure. Yet in the bigger picture, it sure as hell doesn’t matter who wins or loses a youth sports game. But if the focus is on the educational experience, then regardless of what team you’re on at the end, you can all be winners.”
Jackson girls basketball coach Corey Gibb spent more than a decade as the coach at Mariner, where his teams were often the losing end of mostly one-sided games. In those matchups, Gibb broke the game into smaller objectives for his players to focus on, rather than the score.
“Who’s gonna win the tip? Who’s gonna win the first four minutes? Who’s gonna score the first basket?” Gibb said. “We tried to break it up into little chunks, so they’re focusing on little pieces and not the whole 32 minutes.”
Glacier Peak girls basketball coach Hill said rapport between opposing coaches is helpful. He pointed to past games with former Cascade girls basketball coach John Barhanovich. Their teams were vastly different in talent, but they tried to find ways to use their matchups to help both teams improve.
“It ended up almost being kind of practice (or) scrimmage, even though it was a game,” Hill said. “… I would always say, ‘What do you want us to be in? Do you want us to be in a zone (defense)? Do you want us to be in man (defense)? What would help you guys at this point?”
When coaches communicate, Hill said, “it goes a long ways.”
Thomas offered an unsolicited anecdote. In his first year as Kamiak’s coach, when his team was starting mostly freshmen and sophomores, Thomas called Tri. Thomas knew the upcoming game against Lake Stevens — which ended in a 58-0 rout — would be a massive mismatch.
“I was like, ‘Once y’all get 50 points in the first half … do me a favor, don’t let my kids get beat up,’” Thomas said. “And he took care of us. He took care of my kids. I was very appreciative of that, because he could’ve hung 100. And he didn’t. And as coaches, it’s our job in this fraternity to protect one another. And he did that for us, and I was very appreciative of that.”