Obed Cushing catches a pass during Sultan High School’s Aug. 22 football practice. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Obed Cushing catches a pass during Sultan High School’s Aug. 22 football practice. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Prep football preview: North Sound Conference

In the inaugural season of the North Sound Conference, all 6 teams feel they have a chance to win.

After 10 conference titles, more than 80 league wins, an infamous season of forfeits and numerous blowouts, the Archbishop Murphy football team’s 16-year reign of dominance over the Cascade Conference is finished — and so is the league itself.

Now the six schools that make up the newly formed 1A North Sound Conference — Cedar Park Christian, Coupeville, King’s, Granite Falls, South Whidbey and Sultan — enter the league’s inaugural season with hope for competitive balance that eluded the former league for the majority of the past 16 years.

“I talked to my boys this morning about it,” South Whidbey coach Mark Hodson said Tuesday. “I said, ‘With how this conference is put together, we truly do have a chance to win every game. We have a chance to be competitive.”

That’s a sentiment that’s been echoed by many coaches throughout the league.

“From a student-athlete standpoint, I think they’re all excited about, ‘Hey, we may be there to have an opportunity to play for a league championship,’” second-year Sultan coach Jim Wright said. “I think every team in the league can say that.”

That wasn’t the case in the Cascade Conference for the majority of the past 16 years.

Josh Ford catches a pass during Sultan High School’s football practice on Aug. 22. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Josh Ford catches a pass during Sultan High School’s football practice on Aug. 22. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

With the exception of the 2007 season (when the Wildcats went undefeated in conference play and had to forfeit all but two conference games because of a player playing without an up-to-date physical) and a three-year stretch from 2012-2014 in which the Wildcats lost eight conference games and didn’t win a league title, Archbishop Murphy lost only one game to Cascade Conference foes since joining the conference in 2002.

The loss came in 2011 to Lakewood, which was led by a senior quarterback who set school records and accepted a scholarship to a Division-I Football Championship Subdivision school. The Wildcats went 82-9 in league play from 2004-2018 (including the wins they lost from the 2007 forfeits) and 71-1 in seasons that didn’t coincide with their three-year slump.

“I think anyone that’s played (in the Cascade Conference knows) it was always about Archbishop,” said King’s coach Jim Shapiro, who’s in his 22nd year at the helm of the Knights program. “You have to play perfect, you have to stay healthy. There was a short window of time where Lakewood High School and King’s gave them a run for their money.”

Now, without the looming juggernaut penciled into the No. 1 spot of preseason conference favorites, the question is: Who will prevail in a wide-open league that features five of six coaches coaches in their first or second consecutive year with their program?

The answers vary.

Tyler Deason participates in a blocking drill during Sultan High School’s Aug. 22 football practice. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Tyler Deason participates in a blocking drill during Sultan High School’s Aug. 22 football practice. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“If we’re talking about who’s going to come in first, I’d have to say Cedar Park Christian,” Wright said, “just because (of) the coaching staff and what they were able to accomplish last year. They didn’t win every game, but you could see that they (had) a young team, too, (and) how disciplined they are. With coach Goncharoff there, you have to say they’re going to be even better. The Wing-T they were running last year had some glitches. I’m sure they’re going to have those worked out.”

Wright added that the addition of South Whidbey, which returns to league play after playing an independent schedule in 2017, and Coupeville adds an unknown element.

“With the league all juggled up, I don’t know what South Whidbey is going to bring to the table, or Coupeville,” Wright said, “but I know their coaches are pretty excited about this year.”

Shapiro lauded Wright’s squad.

“I think my eye is on Sultan. I think Jim Wright has done a very exceptional job up there,” Shapiro said. “What I saw from Sultan was a very good, athletic group of kids.”

Other coaches don’t see a clear frontrunner.

“In my opinion, I think everybody’s got an equal opportunity to win the league,” said first-year Coupeville coach Marcus Carr, who leads a team that rejoins many of its former Cascade Conference peers after leaving the league following the 2013-2014 school year. “I don’t think there’s any clear-cut favorites.”

That thought has stimulated enthusiasm around these small-school programs that have had to settle for a run for second place in years past.

“It gives the whole community a sense of, ‘OK, we’re playing in a league where it’s competitive. Everybody has a chance to go out there and win,’” Wright said. “You get a little more excitement and a little more buzz about going out there and having a chance of competing for a league championship.”

Besides King’s, which won conference titles in 2012 and 2014, none of the six schools in the new conference have won a league title since the turn of the century. Cedar Park Christian, which started its program in 2005, has never won one.

The last time one of the league’s public schools took home a conference crown was 1990, the same year one-hit-wonder Vanilla Ice dropped his hit single “Ice Ice Baby.” Granite Falls and Coupeville were champions that year.

South Whidbey is 31 years removed from its 1987 conference title, and Sultan’s 45-year league championship drought (1973) is older than all but one National Football League player — Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri.

So yes, there’s reason for excitement.

“To truly have some equality and balance is fun,” Shapiro said. “I think as a 16- or 17-year-old kid, that’s what you want. You want to go out there, you want to have some fun, you want to know that every Friday night that if you compete you have a chance. I think this league really brings that.”

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