Brandon King never dwelled on how agonizingly close the Archbishop Murphy baseball team had been to a state berth before this spring. He just added the close misses to a pile of growing motivation and went to work.
Two years ago, the Wildcats were a game away from reaching the state tournament for the first time since Murphy won back-to-back state titles and made a state semifinal appearance in a span of three years (2011-13). The Wildcats’ bid in 2017 ended in the district tournament on a tough, controversial call.
Last year, Murphy entered districts as the tournament’s No. 1 seed before bowing out a game away from a state berth.
Then came this year’s preseason league rankings. Moving from the defunct Cascade Conference to the Wesco 3A/2A South, the Wildcats were stunned to see they were picked to finish sixth.
“One thing I really think that pushed us this year is that we had a chip on our shoulder from the very beginning.” Murphy’s third-year coach, Max Whitt, said. “When the boys saw they were ranked sixth, they really went at it and worked hard, every single day putting in 100 percent effort.”
More than anything, the ranking and the disappointing endings to Archbishop Murphy’s past two seasons have brought this year’s group closer together.
“It’s nice being able to kind of experience the losses and being able to learn from it and try to lead guys,” King said. “Seeing we were ranked sixth in Wesco, we knew to make it further we had to trust each other, and that means being able to do whatever job that needs to be done.”
The Wildcats (20-5) have reaped the benefits of their hard work and togetherness.
Murphy rolled to a 12-2 league record, claiming the Wesco 3A/2A South title. The Wildcats put together separate winning streaks of six and eight games and got back to the state tournament with a runner-up finish in the 2A Bi-District 1/2 tournament.
With a 3-2 opening round win over W.F. West followed by a 7-2 quarterfinal victory over Ridgefield last weekend, Murphy is returning to Yakima — the site of the 2A semifinals and title game — for the first time in six years.
“I think it’s awesome we made it this far,” Whitt said. “I’m super excited for the boys, and the school and baseball program. We are trying to bring the program back up.”
Murphy’s state title hopes start with a semifinal game against Selah (22-2) at 7 p.m. Friday at Yakima County Stadium.
Selah’s only losses this season came against 3A powerhouse Lakeside in back-to-back games. Interestingly for Murphy, it was a 20-3 loss to Lakeside more than two months ago that proved a turning point for the Wildcats.
“Losing by that much, that was one of the biggest moments in saying we were not going to get down,” King said. “We looked at what we can take away from this game, and that’s been huge for us in not getting down and taking it one game at a time.”
The Wildcats won 14 of their next 15 games. They’ve relied on solid pitching from starters Cole Calnon and Aiden Van Rensum, strong hitting from King (.487 league batting average) and Van Rensum (.490) and more than anything, tremendous defense.
“It’s our defense that has really stepped up this year,” Whitt said. “When our defense is rolling and our pitchers see the great defense behind them, they get more and more confident on the mound.”
That strong defense resulted in several first-team accolades for Murphy players. Third baseman King, shortstop Derek Trobough, second baseman Van Rensum and outfielder Josiah Santiago all recently received All-Wesco South first-team honors, Whitt said.
Whitt also pointed to his strong defense as something he hopes Murphy can lean on against Selah and hopefully again during a title game Saturday night.
“We just have to treat it like another game, play defense really well and take care of the ball,” Whitt said. “I think defense wins championships, and we have to keep being aggressive at the plate.”