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Crater's football team took a big step last week and the Comets will be aiming to make another key move tonight when they play host to North Medford at Dutch Meyer Field.
For a team that has had issues in the past with up-and-down play from one week to the other, Crater will be in search of its third straight win to open Southwest Conference play.
"I think it'll be a great game," said Crater senior Ty Wolf. "Our coaches always talk about faceless opponents so we're just trying to do the best we can each week and hopefully we'll come out with a win."
The same desire will exist across the field but for different reasons. Still trying to develop a foundation under first-year head coach Mike Mitchell, North Medford is in search of its first SWC win after a pair of tough weeks to open the conference against Grants Pass and Sheldon. It was outscored 100-7 in the two games.
"I've told them we're going to focus on getting better each week and it's hard to measure that against Sheldon," Mitchell said of last week's 55-0 road loss. "I thought we'd compete much better than we did and we took a step backward but we won't waste much time worrying about it. As the season unfolds, we want to get into the playoffs and win a playoff game. That's something I think we can do if we keep growing each week."
The Black Tornado (1-3, 0-2 SWC) has been busy adding pieces of the puzzle over the past few weeks with some late-comers to the team and a few others who have turned heads and are deserving of more varsity action.
Getting the boost only winning can bring will be a challenge tonight, especially considering the confidence and energy the Comets are displaying these days.
"I'm really impressed with how they've been playing really hard," said Mitchell. "The film we've really concentrated on is the Grants Pass film and those teams looked similar, but I thought they really outplayed them in terms of their effort and desire. They really have been playing hard and we respect that and that's what we've been giving our guys as advice on how they should be approaching each day."
After going 0-7 in 2010 following a move up from the Class 5A level, the Comets were 3-4 in the SWC last year and posted a significant victory last week, winning in Grants Pass, 29-23, for the first time in history.
"I think it was real big for the program," said Beck. "Our kids had to claw and fight for everything they got, nothing came easy. When it came down to it, our kids really fought for that victory and played very, very hard to make it happen."
The Comets played most of the game without starting quarterback and defensive back Chase Mackey, who took a helmet to his pelvis on the first series. Ty Fox came on in his place and completed 9 of 22 passes for 130 yards and one touchdown.
Beck said Mackey is "probable" for tonight's game, but the Comets haven't hesitated to go with Fox behind center this season and have confidence that either can get the job done — albeit in different ways.
"They're totally different personalities," said Beck. "Chase is calm and cool and would be great at playing poker because you can't read him. Ty's real demonstrative and outgoing, personality-wise. They're both different but both really fun, though."
Mackey is more adept at running with the football to complement a steady throwing hand, while Fox is more inclined to hang in the pocket and sling the ball around.
Both have enjoyed a surge from running backs Wolf and Carlos Higuerra, who have provided tough running to balance Crater's attack. The Comets are averaging 310 yards per game, with 152 of it coming on the ground.
Crater also boasts a defense that ranks third in the SWC in yards (269.5 per game) and points (19.8 per game) allowed. Senior linebacker Derrick Turituri spearheads that effort and has drawn the attention of Mitchell and his staff.
"I really think (Turituri) definitely is a good player," Mitchell said of the Arizona commit. "We've got to do some things to stay away from him if we can."
Offensively, North Medford wasn't able to gain much ground against the second-ranked Irish last week, but Sheldon can make just about any team struggle. Beck said he's been impressed with what he's seen out of the Black Tornado under Mitchell's guidance.
"I really like what North's doing," said Beck. "I think they're getting better every week. Throw the Sheldon game out because they're so good and you watch them on film and they're more disciplined, they're just young in some positions."
Senior tailback Evan Hisey continues to power the Black Tornado on both sides of the ball but appears to be getting more help with the increased production of sophomore Nick Janakes. Hisey leads the SWC with 339 yards rushing on 58 carries, while Janakes is averaging 6.2 yards per carry.
The addition of Oshea Bailey and, more recently, Micah Brown gives North more options in the backfield to take pressure off sophomore quarterback Troy Fowler. Fowler has completed 40 of 96 passes for 452 yards with four interceptions and two TDs.
After a solid showing against the Irish, Colton Westfall will see more playing time at linebacker and fellow sophomore Skyler Black could see some action on the line.
"We're not trying to replace anybody," said Mitchell, "we're just trying to get to where we can get our guys off the field so we can talk to them between series. Guys like (lineman) Tyler Baird and Hisey are on the field all the time. We have to give those guys a chance to get to the sideline and go over adjustments with the coaches."
Fou Polataivao was North Medford's offensive player of the week against Sheldon, said Mitchell, and has provided strong defense in the trenches.
The Black Tornado ranks second-to-last in the SWC in total offense (218.3 yards per game), total defense (397 ypg) and scoring defense (37.8 points per game). North ranks last with 13.3 points scored per game but has broken even in turnovers, with nine takeaways and nine giveaways.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry