Once the laughing stock, Turks are surging
SULTAN — With 30 seconds to go in Sultan High School’s final regular-season football game Friday night, the person behind the microphone in the pressbox made an unusual announcement.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he shouted, "the Turks are going to the playoffs."
The last time "Turks" and "playoffs" were mentioned in the same breath was 1986, and then it was a Cascade A League mini-playoff, in which Sultan was beaten.
On this chilly night, the Sultan fans stood and cheered their players, who were putting the finishing touches on a 49-8 victory over South Whidbey.
After the ritual handshakes with the opposing team, the Turks gathered in front of the grandstand and took part in a cheer. As the huddle broke, several players had tears in their eyes.
For the many seniors, this was something they hadn’t envisioned, because in the previous three years, the Turks had won only five games.
The losing went even deeper than that. After the ‘86 team finished 6-4, Sultan didn’t have another winning record until 1995, when it was 8-1 and finished in second place in the Cascade A League.
Two winners in 14 years doesn’t breed confidence in a program.
In recent years, when September rolled around, the feeling around town was "Oh, another football season," said Bob Cofer, an electrician who played for the Turks from 1976-80.
Cofer was standing behind a fence on the track in front of the grandstand watching Friday night’s game. "I’m just loving this," he said.
So was the largely partisan crowd, which almost filled the grandstand. "The last 10 years, people stopped coming," Cofer said. "By this time of year, it would have been mostly parents here."
Minutes after the game, the players drifted down to the one end of the field and doused their coach with water.
"This is awesome," said Brad Sim, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound senior lineman. Asked if he thought he would ever experience a moment like this, he replied, "At the beginning of the season, honestly, no."
Now the Turks, who finished with a 5-3 record in the North Cascades 2A League (5-4 overall), take on Port Townsend tonight at Silverdale in the first round of the state playoffs.
One man who had faith that Sultan football would rise again was Dave Harrington, the high school principal. Hired two years ago as athletic director, the former Lewiston, Idaho, football and wrestling coach came here with visions of improving the entire athletic program, not just football. "We wanted to see everything get better," he said, "but football is the driving force of a sports program."
For football to improve, some drastic upgrades had to be made in the facilities. The old stadium was, in Harrington’s words, "in pretty rough condition … it was leaning and had been condemned. The field had a lot of holes in it."
Bob McNamee, who has taught in the high school for 29 years ("through some of the grim times"), said, "For years, we told the kids ‘we love you’ but we didn’t give them the facilities to support them. Now we have a first-class facility and that makes a world of difference."
When Harrington came here in the summer of ‘98, work was about to begin on a new $3 million stadium with a grass field and a rubber/asphalt track. "When I saw the blueprints, I was very impressed with it," he said. "I looked at some things that had to be done, and the school board, the community, everybody wanted to see progress made."
The weight room, for one thing, was inadequate. "It was a small room down by the concession stand, all the equipment (what there was of it) was very, very old, and I went to the board and said, ‘If we want to be successful in our extra-curricular activities, we’ve got to have a strength/fitness area and updated equipment,’ " he said.
His wish was granted. Sultan’s athletes now have a much larger room with an extensive array of equipment that is already starting to show results. Harrington’s ultimate goal is to convert an unused 3,000-square-foot room into a weight-training center that both the school’s athletes and the community can use.
As Harrington conducted a tour of the athletic complex recently, he made it clear that he wants to see all of Sultan’s sports teams in the playoffs sometime soon. "We have a real strong girls’ soccer program and they’ve been in the state playoffs; basketball has been adequate but we want to see it get to the top; wrestling has always been tough and the track program has tremendous numbers out with the new track," he said.
The football stadium — a showcase facility with aluminum bleachers, backs on every seat and room for 1,400 — was completed last year but the team, which had a 1-8 record, didn’t win a home game. In fact, in the last three years, the Turks were 0-for-3 at homecoming. That was about to change.
A new coach arrived this year. His name — Jim MacDicken, a white-haired, 55-year-old Puget Sound native. Before coming to Sultan, he was head coach at Portland’s Roosevelt High for eight years. In 1995, he was Oregon State Coach of the Year, leading Roosevelt to its first league championship in 50 years.
Harrington interviewed coaches from several states, but one man stood out above all others. "My cousin, who was the assistant principal at Roosevelt, was one of the references so I called Brad and said, ‘Can you tell me about this MacDicken guy,’ " Harrington said. "He said the guy’s a winner, a man of character, a man of honesty. He doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk as a role model.’"
At his first meeting with the players, MacDicken didn’t promise them wins. "The only promise I could give a kid," he said, "the only promise I made was to work as hard as I could."
He has delivered on that promise. Harrington offered one stunning example. Last July, he returned from vacation to find MacDicken, alone, painting the new weight room. Harrington was flabbergasted. Why don’t you get the players in here to help you? he asked.
MacDicken immediately scotched that idea. "I paint this," he said. "I want this looking nice for the kids when they come in. They get to lift in a nice area, it’s clean, it looks sharp. If I do this part, the kids will do their part when they come in."
"The guy worked the entire month of July, day-in, day-out, long, hard hours and never got a penny for it," Harrington said. "I was very, very impressed with him. One of the boys, Drew Davison, was walking out with me one evening in July and he said, ‘He is one hard worker, isn’t he?’ "
His biggest challenge was to get players out and then to convince them they could win. The Turks had finished last season with 22 players.
"We started with 50," Sim said. "Guys didn’t want to stick with it. There were only a select few who wanted to play."
The Turks, mind you, had absorbed some vicious beatings the last three years. "We were losing 60-0 and 70-0," Harrington said. "We just wanted to give them an opportunity to compete and to not get embarrassed."
MacDicken had only 25-30 kids turn out for spring practice, but by fall, the numbers were up to 60 and they have stayed there.
The Turks started slowly — losing their first two games, 20-0 to Lakewood and 42-6 to Meridian.
Next up was Mount Baker. In the days leading up to the game, MacDicken was promising "the biggest upset in the state."
The man was either mad or he was on to something. The year before, Mount Baker had beaten Sultan 71-7.
The game was in the new stadium and the stands were packed. "I don’t think there were a lot of people who believed we could beat them," Harrington said.
Only one group needed to believe: the players. Travis Brown believed. Tim Benjamin believed. Allen Root believed. Mike Andriessen believed. Gavin Galle believed. Brandon Ebey believed. Blair Broughton believed. Bryan Nelson believed. Erik Solberg really believed (he rushed for 125 yards and made 15 tackles). Mount Baker came in 2-0 and went out 2-1. Sultan won, 20-8.
"Our kids played one of the great games," Harrington said. "Mount Baker was absolutely stunned that Sultan, which had tied for last in the league, could come back and do that to them."
Harrington recalled that every person in the stadium was standing and the electricity was palpable. "There was a feeling there for about 10 minutes after the game that I don’t think the kids will ever forget," he said.
"I had chills," Sim said. "It was our first win over a major opponent."
The Turks lost their next two games, but not embarrassingly. They worried the ninth-ranked team in the state, Cascade of Leavenworth, before falling 34-28. (A year ago, Cascade won 46-0.)
Now they were 1-4. And about to run the table. They beat Nooksack Valley 16-0, then went up against Blaine at homecoming. A fireworks display would follow that game. The Turks provided their own pyrotechnics, winning 34-20 over a team that had beaten them by four touchdowns last year.
Sultan got back at Granite Falls for a 12-7 loss, winning 50-0 as Jerr Roesler made 10 tackles and Davison had four sacks.
This past Friday, after the Turks got their fourth straight win, MacDicken stood on the field for a long time chatting with fans. His hair was matted down from the water bottle shower and he was cold, but he was happy.
"I’ve always wanted to be in a small school," he said. "I like that feeling of camaraderie and togetherness we have here. We have the band support and the fan support. The types of things we have are pretty special."
Long after most of the fans had left, several of the Turk players started walking to the locker room.
About halfway across the field, they stopped, got down on one knee, bowed their heads and prayed.
Most of them were seniors who have been friends since grade school.
This would be a night, and a season, they would remember forever.
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