Archbishop Murphy’s Anfernee Gurley speaks to reporters during a press conference Oct. 5 at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Archbishop Murphy situation forcing WIAA to consider options

In a season of forfeits for the Archbishop Murphy High School football team, a lot of people are looking for ways to solve the problems of competitive balance and player safety.

An idea that seems to be gaining traction is similar to one put forth this past offseason. Under the proposal, which would be for football only, the Cascade and Northwest conferences would merge and the schools assigned to divisions, with elite programs in one and lesser programs in the other.

Though plenty of questions remain, “I think it is doable,” said Jim Piccolo, the director of Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) District 1, which is essentially Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties. “In fact, I think it is really doable.”

The plan would not only benefit a powerful program such as Archbishop Murphy — which has had five games taken away this season because opponents chose to forfeit rather than play the powerful Wildcats — but also teams that are lacking in both players and talent. It is equally important “to help those programs that are really struggling,” Piccolo said. “Because if we do not take care of those schools and help them build back up, they’re going to lose their programs.”

The goal, he said, is to ask, “How can we get a level playing field (for everyone)?”

If the proposal passes a vote of District 1 athletic directors, it could look something like this: Based on the current standings, top 2A teams such as Archbishop Murphy, Lynden, Sedro-Woolley, Burlington-Edison, Lakewood and Blaine could play in one division. The other division might include Granite Falls, Cedarcrest, Anacortes, Sehome and Bellingham.

Mountlake Terrace, which is a 2A school, could join this new conference or opt to stay in the Class 3A Western Conference.

The advantage of playing in the stronger division likely would be more available playoff spots compared to the second division.

The district’s eight Class 1A schools — King’s, South Whidbey, Sultan, Cedar Park Christian, Mount Baker, Nooksack Valley, Meridian and Lynden Christian — might play as one division or divide into two, again based on football prowess.

The divisions could be reshuffled every year or two based on enrollment changes and whether teams are surging or slipping in the standings.

District ADs might also decide to do something similar in the Wesco 3A by switching from North and South divisions to Division 1 and Division II, with top teams together in the first division.

It is important to remember that this is a football-only proposal. All other sports would stay with their current league alignments.

Others administrators in Washington also are studying this proposal because “it’s an issue all around the state and it has to be fixed all around the state,” said Tom Doyle, director of WIAA District 2, which includes the Metro and Kingco leagues.

“Regardless of (enrollment) class, and regardless of whether a school is public or private, let’s put all the (schools) that can compete against each other in one league, and put the (schools) who are having trouble in a different division. … We have to think non-traditional to solve this problem and we have to think differently about football because of the safety factor.”

A similar proposal was considered by District 1 ADs last winter, but was voted down by some Cascade Conference members. Given what has happened to Archbishop Murphy this season, it is possible, even likely, those same schools might reconsider if the plan comes up again.

If the proposal still did not pass, Archbishop Murphy could apply to join another league. The school applied to join the Wesco for all sports earlier in the year, but its application was denied and that decision seems unlikely to change, according to league president and Marysville Athletic Director Greg Erickson.

“To be honest with you, this was a closed deal,” Erickson said. “As much as everybody is talking about it, Archbishop Murphy is not an agenda item at our meeting.”

It is likewise doubtful that Archbishop Murphy would join the Seattle-based Metro League. “Archbishop Murphy has never approached us,” said league president Eric McCurdy. “And at this time we are not looking to expand our league.”

Archbishop Murphy could apply to join the Northwest Conference for all sports, but would face some of the same competitive-balance issues for football.

“If they applied to come into the Northwest Conference, that would be something the league would look at,” said Lynden athletic director Mike McKee. But the foremost goal, he added, is to “create something that would be closer to competitive balance for the survival of the sport (at all District 1 schools).

“I don’t know that doing nothing is an option,” he added.

Piccolo agrees, and he points out that football in Washington has “haves and have-nots, and the (gap) between them is getting greater.” In District 1 and across the state, “the disparity between the playing levels is huge.”

The answer, he went on, will require “thinking outside the box. We have to get it out of peoples’ minds that, ‘This is my league and this is the only place I can play.’ But if we can look at this and at what’s best for the kids, then I think we can help these kids and we can also help some of these (struggling) programs survive.”

Piccolo cannot promise a prompt solution, “but I’m going to push hard to see if we can do it in a year’s period of time,” he said.

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