Even though St. Mary’s High School football team didn’t beat Pinole Valley, head coach Jay Lawson considers the Panthers’ Oct. 5 35-27 loss against the eventual Alameda Contra Costa Athletic League champion as the defining moment in his team’s season.
After starting the season 1-3, St. Mary’s met Pinole and came up just short against one of the Bay Area’s premiere football teams. Following the defeat St. Mary’s quarterback Steve Murphy predicted the Panthers would go undefeated the remainder of the season. They nearly fulfilled that prophecy, winning four of their next five games en route to capturing a Bay Shore Athletic League title before falling to Campolindo, 22-20, in the first round of the North Coast Section 2A playoffs.
“That was a definite turning point,” Lawson said of the Pinole Valley game. “If you would have told me in week four after McClymonds (St. Mary’s lost 57-13) that we’d be league champions, I wouldn’t have believed it. This team has come a long way.”
A long way indeed considering that a month before its season opener, St. Mary’s was still searching for a starting quarterback. Vallejo High sophomore DeMarcus Nelson, who committed to transfer to St. Mary’s and was projected as the Panthers’ play-caller, decided to return to Vallejo, leaving the Panthers high and dry.
Locally, the quarterback slot well appeared empty. The Panthers graduated their only varsity quarterback from last season and the starting junior varsity quarterback transferred to Albany High, Lawson said.
Reaching deep, the coach knew that Murphy, 16, who started varsity at strong safety last season, split time at quarterback during his freshman year at St. Mary’s.
Lawson offered him the position and Murphy eagerly accepted the challenge to run an offense that planned to pass the ball more than was typical of a St. Mary’s team.
“I was going to play tailback, receiver, slot back and start at strong safety. That was my plan because I wanted to get the ball in my hands more,” Murphy said. “Lawson said: ‘Well you wanted to get the ball in your hands, now you can play quarterback.’ I said: ‘I’ll take it, no hesitation.’”
In demonstrating his familiarity with the quarterback position, Murphy mentioned that he threw 12 touchdown passes as a 10-year-old on the Oakland Dynamites peewee team. That was after he almost got cut as a 9-year-old.
“I was the last person on the list,” Murphy said of his first football experience. “I was the 35th player chosen and barely made the team.”
Prior to his remarkable second season for the Dynamites, Murphy’s uncle, Robert, helped him with his passing technique.
When Robert learned of Murphy’s position on the Panthers this year, he quickly returned to help his nephew brush up on his quarterback skills.
In his final game of the season, Murphy threw for 132 yards and ran for another 78 as St. Mary’s defeated Piedmont 20-15 to secure the BSAL title and receive an automatic bid to the regional playoffs.
Calling it the biggest game he’s ever played in, Murphy fed off the energy of the Piedmont crowd and the atmosphere of playing under the lights on the Highlanders’ new field. Add to that competing against UCLA-bound quarterback Drew Olsen for the BSAL title and you have the ingredients for a monumental game.
“I’m a clutch player,” Murphy said. “When they told me I had to step up, that’s exactly what I did.”
The season didn’t begin particularly smoothly. The Panthers started as cold as they finished hot, losing four of their first five games, which Lawson attributed to inexperience. In addition to Murphy, St. Mary’s welcomed seven other newcomers to the offense.
Despite his quarterback experience in pre-high school and freshman football and his varsity duties as strong safety last year, Murphy said that it took time to adjust to his new role as the St. Mary’s offensive leader.
“It took a few games to get used to it at the varsity level, but I like the leadership and captain role,” he said. “The change was good.”
In his final six games of the regular season Murphy threw for more than 900 yards and 11 touchdowns, Lawson said. “It took us the first month of the season to figure out Steve’s strengths,” he added. “He’s able to make great decisions on the run.”
Characteristically an emotional player, Murphy’s learned to keep his feelings in check on the field and now turns past mistakes into future positives.
“Steve is extremely competitive,” Lawson said. “In some games early in the season he would get too upset and lose focus. He controls that better now and channels it.”
In addition to running the offense, Murphy also runs track for St. Mary’s and competes in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 4x100-meter relay. “I started running track to get ready for football,” he said.
Murphy’s got another year at St. Mary’s, but when he’s finished he wants to be known as someone who scrambled effectively in the pocket. He said he’s more comfortable when he’s on the move and, at 5-foot-10 he admitted that it’s sometimes difficult to see over his linemen.
“He does well when he scrambles,” Lawson said. “As he’s scrambling he’s still looking to throw the ball rather than run with it.”
As for college, Murphy’s hoping a football opportunity presents itself and is looking to attend school on the West Coast. “I’ll go wherever I fit in the best,” he said.