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Those in attendance for South Medford's homecoming football game last Friday got a glimpse at an aggressive scheme that is beginning to gain more steam across the nation.
Already a team known for utilizing a blitz-happy defense and an up-tempo offense that runs to the line of scrimmage and snaps the ball within seconds after each play, Thurston High of Springfield has taken its aggressive approach to a new level. The Colts attempt onside kicks on nearly every kickoff, rarely punt on fourth down and go for two-point conversions after every touchdown.
It's an unconventional style that left many at Spiegelberg Stadium with their mouths agape, but it's not one that's unique to Thurston. Sports Illustrated recently featured the full-tilt scheming of Kevin Kelley, head coach of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark., and his success in similarly going all-out, and there are many other examples popping up across the nation in high school and small college ranks.
Thurston head coach Justin Starck said Monday the decision to throw caution to the wind came last winter as he and his staff tried to pinpoint ways they could think outside the box for their game planning.
"The original philosophy for us came from Concord High School in the Bay Area," said Starck. "They're in the same league as De La Salle and they just felt like with the kids they had, they had no chance if they didn't try to do something different. They made a commitment to go for it at all times and pin their ears back. You're never going to win if you're not willing to lose by 70 and take every chance to beat them."
The presentation given during the offseason proved powerful for Starck and company and, statistically, made sense when it comes to kicking away or trying to recover an onside kick, punting or going for it and going for two points instead of extra-point kicks.
"Some people think that it's radical but we just think it makes sense," said Starck. "We hope that our opponents, after they compete with us, have a headache and are physically and mentally exhausted."
Starck readily admits that Thurston's approach is always successful.
Against the third-ranked Panthers, the Colts attempted four onside kicks, one pooch kick and kicked away once. South Medford recovered every kick and sophomore Anthony Gomez even returned one 54 yards for a touchdown. Taking the TD out of the equation, South's average start was from its own 48 on the onside and pooch kicks. The one time the Colts kicked it deep came by surprise and was still returned to the Panther 38-yard line.
"It sure wasn't very good proof for our philosophy Friday night," said Starck. "If we felt that the scheme or philosophy was flawed we couldn't stick with it, but most of it is just a matter of execution."
"We're going to make some adjustments, we just had some major, major breakdowns against South," he added. "We sent the coverage one way and the kick went the other way three separate times. We just had some missed signals, and on our pooch kicks we want to get the ball a little higher and get under it more."
The touchdown return was the second allowed this year by the Colts, who have recovered six onside kicks. Starck said he's found that the average starting position for opponents is between 5 and 10 yards off what they tracked in past seasons with regular kickoffs.
"We're dedicated to it," said Starck. "People can agree or disagree but there's definitely a philosophy behind it and we've done some research on it. When we get takeaways on top of the field position being not much different, we just thought it's worth going to get that ball."
On fourth down, Thurston converted 3 of 7 attempts against the Panthers, although some decisions weren't entirely unusual. Four attempts came when the Colts needed 3 yards or less. Thurston also missed a 30-yard field goal on fourth down, possibly encouraging them to go for it, unsuccessfully, on fourth-and-goal from the South 8-yard line.
On two-point conversions, where 50-percent success breaks even, the Colts were only 1-for-5 in the 45-32 loss.
Through it all, though, Starck said the impact such decisions have on applying pressure to the opposing team and boosting the morale of his own team is just as important as any statistical category.
"Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but when it does work it's a lot of fun," said the coach. "The kids are excited and it's fun for them to know they're going after the football at all times and really pushing that envelope. The kids love it. They love the aggressiveness. Kids always want to go for it, they always want to shoot 3-pointers and swing for the fences."
The Colts never punted against the Panthers but they do have a punt formation in the playbook that calls for sending out four wide receivers and the backup quarterback. Given what the opponents show, Thurston either attempts a play or utilizes a rugby style punt when the stakes are too high to go for it.
Similarly, if a team puts all its players up front on a kickoff, the Colts have been known to kick away to pin opponents inside their own 10-yard line.
"I think the main thing is just to think outside the box and look at the way either a defense or return team is lined up and try to take advantage of any weakness you can find," said Starck. "For the most part that's smart football."
At the very least, it's a philosophy that appears will increasingly be up for debate in the coming years.
COMPARING ONE SEASON to another is an inexact science, but Medford sports guru B.G. Gould conjured up some interesting figures as it relates to the first five weeks of a football season.
South Medford entered last Friday with its first 5-0 start since 2001. In that season, the Panthers outscored their opponents 217-58 in the first five games. This season, those numbers are 212-62.
Since beginning in 1986, South Medford has actually opened the football season with five straight wins seven times — allowing no points in '86, 30 in '87 and 33 in '88.
Points allowed, however, reached a new high across town at North Medford High this season. The Black Tornado faced a daunting opening slate and posted a 1-4 mark through five games, allowing a record 263 points (52.6 per game). The previous high also coincided with a 1-4 start in 2005, with North Medford allowing 151 points that season.
North Medford has opened with five straight wins on four occasions, doing so every-other-year beginning in 2000.
On the flip side, the Panthers have gone winless in their first five games on three occasions, from 1997-99, while the Black Tornado has never failed to post at least one win in its first five games since Medford split into two schools.
TRAGIC CIRCUMSTANCES have made it necessary for Cascade Christian's football homecoming game against Illinois Valley to be moved to 7 p.m. Friday at U.S. Cellular Community Park out of respect to the Illinois Valley community.
The Miller family, which has had deep ties at Illinois Valley High for decades, lost one of their own when 42-year-old Sean Miller of Selma collided with a pickup truck on Waldo Road on Saturday and died at the scene.
According to a report by the Illinois Valley Daily View, the accident was first reported at 2:57 p.m. Saturday and it was determined that Miller, who was wearing a helmet, was traveling east on Waldo Road near Rockydale Road when his Harley Davidson motorcycle apparently left the lane of travel and hit a westbound Chevy pickup truck. None of the three passengers in the truck reported injuries.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry