For the perennial powerhouse Archbishop Murphy High School football program, last year’s early postseason exit was both stunning and disappointing.
As the No. 2 seed in the Class 2A Northwest/Sea-King Bi-District playoffs, the Wildcats entered their Week 10 winner-to-state matchup as a definite favorite over ninth-seeded Sehome.
Archbishop Murphy, after all, had made three consecutive state semifinal appearances, highlighted by a state title in 2016. Sehome, on the other hand, was just one year removed from playing an independent schedule, which was done in an effort to combat low participation numbers and rebuild its long-struggling program.
But the Mariners pulled off a major upset, rattling off 37 straight points to hand Archbishop Murphy a shocking 37-9 season-ending loss.
It marked just the fourth time since 2002 that the Wildcats failed to reach the state playoffs.
“It was obviously a disappointing loss,” said Archbishop Murphy interim head coach Mark Leone, who was the team’s offensive coordinator last season. “That’s never our expectation here, to lose in the crossover (round). But it happened, and you have to find a way to deal with it. You have to be a mature adult.
“You have to accept the result, but also we have to find a way to use it as a motivator. And I think the kids have done that. I think it’s really fueled them in their offseason workouts.”
Archbishop Murphy senior running back Mason Mathis said a specific memory from moments after that season-ending loss has provided extra motivation.
“I looked around and I saw the faces of all the seniors, and that really stuck with me, like not wanting to go out that way,” Mathis said. “And I think that’s really driven me throughout the offseason.”
The offseason included a head-coaching change for the Wildcats, who are no longer under the direction of Jerry Jensen. The former University of Washington standout linebacker coached Archbishop Murphy for the past six seasons and also was the school’s athletic director.
When asked this past spring why Jensen was no longer the head coach, Archbishop Murphy principal Alex Crane said, “We were just looking for opportunities internally for Jerry to focus on his AD role.”
However, Jensen is no longer listed as the school’s athletic director and no longer appears in the school’s online staff directory. Archbishop Murphy girls basketball coach Cassie Snyder is listed as the new athletic director.
When asked why Jensen is no longer the coach, Leone declined to comment. An attempt to reach Jensen for comment last spring was unsuccessful.
Leone, a 2006 Archbishop Murphy graduate who played quarterback and defensive back for the Wildcats under legendary coach Terry Ennis, has replaced Jensen on an interim basis for this season.
“It was hard I think for all of us hearing the news and it happening so soon,” Archbishop Murphy senior quarterback Victor Gabalis said of the coaching change. “But that change hasn’t affected us as much, and we’re doing everything we can to be the best we can.”
After graduating from Archbishop Murphy, Leone spent two years as an assistant coach at Hockinson High School in southwest Washington before coming back to his alma mater and joining the Wildcats’ coaching staff for the 2009 season. Then after spending about six-and-a-half years in the Navy, he returned to coaching as the offensive coordinator at Cleveland High School in Seattle for one season.
Leone then came back to Archbishop Murphy in 2016, spending two years as the wide receivers coach and last season as the offensive coordinator before filling in as the interim head coach.
“It was an easy transition process,” Archbishop Murphy two-way senior lineman Zion Robinson said. “We already knew coach Leone. It wasn’t like a new guy just coming in.”
Leone said that most things will remain the same from the Jensen era, including the Wildcats’ run-first approach on offense. Last season, Archbishop Murphy ran the ball nearly 70 percent of the time.
However, Leone said the Wildcats will operate out of the Wing-T offense more often than in recent years.
“(We’re) getting more back to the Archbishop Murphy roots,” he said.
But with a highly regarded third-year starter in Gabalis returning at quarterback, Leone also said the Wildcats don’t want to neglect the passing game.
Gabalis, an athletic 6-foot-3, 200-pounder who also plays baseball for Archbishop Murphy, didn’t begin playing quarterback until high school. But the dual-sport athlete has progressed into a two-star college prospect at the position, earning NCAA Division-I scholarship offers from Army, Navy and Air Force.
Since last season, Leone and Mathis both said Gabalis’ biggest improvements have been accuracy and decision-making.
“He’s always had real good arm strength and he’s always been real athletic,” Mathis said. “I think his touch has really improved a lot and his decision-making.”
The Wildcats also plan to play Gabalis at safety this year. The senior quarterback said he’s never played defense before, but that he approached the coaching staff this offseason with the idea of playing on both sides of the ball.
“(I want to) help out my team as much as I can,” Gabalis said. “I don’t want to stand on the sidelines when we’re on defense. I’d rather be out there with my brothers doing the best that I can for the team, trying to get us where we want to be.”
For a team coming off a rare early postseason loss, that means making another deep run into the state playoffs and reestablishing the Wildcats as one of 2A’s premier football programs.
“We want to just show who we are this year,” Gabalis said. “We want to be Archbishop Murphy again.”