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A high school football team so good that nobody wants to play them anymore

A high school football team so good that nobody wants to play them anymore
Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy's Ben Hines tackles Bishop Blanchet's Q Johnson after a one-yard-gain during a Sept. 9 game in which Archbishop Murphy shut out Bishop Blanchet, 59-0. (Lindsey Wasson / Seattle Times)

A look at the record indicates this is a winning season for the Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy High School football team. The Wildcats have won seven straight without a loss, haven't given up a single touchdown and are ranked No. 1 in the state among schools its size.

In one game, ATM, as it's known, outscored its opponent, 73-0, in the first half – then, in an act of sportsmanship if not mercy, went scoreless in the second half.

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So why are the players, coaches and students so glum?

The Wildcats are, alas, too good. So good, in fact, that nobody wants to play them anymore. Opponents are now phoning in their defeats ahead of time.

As it stands, ATM could go to the playoffs with a 9-0 record — five or six of them forfeits.

The cancellations began after Archbishop Murphy won its first three games by a combined score of 170-0.

Seeing the lopsided outcomes, the next four slated teams — including this coming Friday's opponent — all chose to forfeit rather than play and most likely lose badly to the industrial-sized Wildcats.

Archbishop Murphy players celebrate their dominant, 59-0 win over Bishop Blanchet on Sept. 9.
Archbishop Murphy players celebrate their dominant, 59-0 win over Bishop Blanchet on Sept. 9. (Lindsey Wasson / Seattle Times)

The 525-student private Catholic school features seven players who weigh at least 245 pounds, three of them tipping the scales at more than 300 pounds. Unlike public schools, which must draw players from only the nearby community, according to state rules, private schools can recruit players from as far as 50 miles away.

It's an "unfortunate situation," says Todd Lundberg, athletic director of Cedar Park Christian High School, which was scheduled to play ATM this week in the Wildcats' homecoming game. But on Saturday, his school joined the forfeiture parade, sending along the team's regrets in an email.

"The concern of CPC parents over the safety of their sons has led Cedar Park Christian to forfeit our game with ATM scheduled for October 14th," he wrote.  The concern was similar to the one announced last week by Granite Falls High, the third school in the seven-team Cascade Conference to forfeit.

"The most important thing for us is the safety of the kids," said Granite Falls Principal Kevin Davis, noting that parents were the driving force behind the school's decision.

At a community meeting last week in the mountain foothill town of 3,400 an hour north of Seattle, Stacey McBridge, mother of one of the Granite Falls players, explained the dilemma.

"My son is 5-foot-8 and weighs 117 pounds and just got out of middle school and just turned 14. They've [the Wildcats] got 18-year-old players that are 6-5 and weigh 330 pounds. I mean, that's like putting a Volkswagen Bug against a Mack truck."

She said her son agreed. "He said 'Mom, I'll get killed. Why would I even put myself in that position?'"

Some of the players at Archbishop Murphy held a news conference in the school library the next day to explain how they felt about what was then three Friday nights without lights.

Jerry Jensen, Archbishop Murphy's head coach and athletic director, fields questions during a news conference with his players. Several schools have forfeited games against the Wildcats after they won their first three games by a combined score of 170-0.
Jerry Jensen, Archbishop Murphy's head coach and athletic director, fields questions during a news conference with his players. Several schools have forfeited games against the Wildcats after they won their first three games by a combined score of 170-0. (Kevin Clark / Daily Herald)

"I'm just ready to get back on the field and start playing again," said Abraham Lucas, a 6-8, 250-pound lineman. Anfernee Gurley, a 5-11, 175-pound cornerback who, like Lucas, has accepted a college football scholarship, seconded that. "At the end of the day, we just want to play football," he said.

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Coach Jerry Jensen said Lucas, Gurley and other seniors had worked hard since their freshman year to get where they are now – poised to win the school's first state football championship since 2003. Like their opponents this year, they too endured blowout losses, including a 55-10 drubbing as freshmen, Jensen said. But they played on.

The first school to forfeit this season seemed to have a valid concern – South Whidbey High had only 14 players, and might not be able to finish the game. "With the overwhelming physical disadvantage we'd have going into [a game with] Archbishop Murphy," South Whidbey athletic director Paul Lagerstedt told the Daily Herald of Everett, "they would not get anything out of it and we would not get anything out of it."

The second forfeiture, by Sultan High School, was prompted by similar concerns. "Play after play, somebody's going to get hurt," announced Sultan Coach Jim Kruckenberg. "It's not 'if.' It's going to happen."

Dave Ray, the father of a Sultan player, said even if the school hadn't forfeited, "I will not let my son play against Archbishop Murphy." He drew applause from other parents who expressed concerns about the likelihood of injuries, or worse, when playing a powerhouse opponent.

The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research recorded seven fatalities directly related to football during the 2015 season, all involving U.S. high school players. The fatalities, mostly resulting from tackles or blocks, included the death of Kenney Bui, a senior at Evergreen High School in Seattle who suffered a traumatic concussion while making a tackle last October.

Of course, injuries or deaths can result when teams are equals, too, or even when they're not playing at all. The center lists 10 other 2015 deaths at the prep and college levels related to heat stroke and physical assertion. Six occurred during conditioning exercises and three at football practice.

Some Archbishop Murphy supporters have suggested that the forfeiting schools are sending out the wrong signal to students, backing out of their agreements when faced with a tough challenge. Granite Falls Coach Tim Dennis denied his school was "afraid to play the game." His worry was "size disparity," he said.

Members of the Archbishop Murphy football team leave a news conference on Oct. 5, 2016, after another school refused to play them.
Members of the Archbishop Murphy football team leave a news conference on Oct. 5, 2016, after another school refused to play them. (Kevin Clark / Daily Herald)

Seattle radio host and ex-NFL quarterback Brock Huard said unlevel playing fields are common in high school. Forfeitures, he said, are like "cutting the knees out" of a successful program, and effectively cast "shame on Archbishop Murphy and shame on Jerry Jensen" for winning.

League officials are mulling possible solutions — like moving the Wildcats to a tougher league, something ATM itself has requested.

ATM is down to two possible remaining regular-season games. One is still up in the air. But the Oct. 21 game with Olympic High of Bremerton looks promising.

"You don't teach the right lesson" by not showing up, Olympic Athletic Director Nate Andrews told the Kitsap Sun.

"We are not going to shy away from competition," said Andrews, whose son is on the team. "We are planning on playing."

Anderson is a special correspondent

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