Ashland’s volleyball program had quite a run brewing from 2005-09, securing top-four state trophies in all five seasons.
With automatic bids to the Class 6A football state playoffs already locked up, some of the anxiety for tonight's clash at Spiegelberg Stadium between South Medford and Crater has been taken away.
That doesn't mean there isn't a lot to play for, however, in the Southwest Conference finale for both teams.
"You're at the point in the season where you want to keep winning because winning breeds confidence," said South Medford head coach Bill Singler, whose team is 14th in the 6A power rankings. "We've won three ballgames in a row and this is the last game on the regular schedule and you certainly would like to go into the playoffs with a win and momentum."
Add in the fact that this is homecoming week for the Panthers and their senior night and there's a lot to tonight's game beyond simply a meeting of two of the SWC's finest.
Across the field, the Comets have similar high hopes for a strong finish to the regular season and their first win over South Medford since 1999. That streak is a little skewed, however, by the fact that the teams didn't play when Crater moved to the 5A level from 2006-09.
"We just want to go out and play hard and look good and I know Bill wants to do the same thing to get ready and into playoff mode," said Crater head coach John Beck. "Hopefully it's a real good game with two fairly evenly matched teams. Whoever plays the best and makes the least mistakes will probably come out and win."
In tonight's other SWC finales, North Medford is at Roseburg, Grants Pass at Sheldon and Thurston at South Eugene.
Sheldon has already wrapped up another conference title, with South Medford, Crater and Thurston tied for second place at 4-2 in SWC play and Grants Pass one game back at 3-3.
The top four teams in the SWC advance to the playoffs, while the next four face play-in games.
Even if the Cavemen pull off an upset tonight, South Medford (6-2) and Crater (4-4) each own the head-to-head tiebreaker over GP and it's unlikely Thurston will falter against the winless Axemen.
What tonight does offer is a chance at a new start for the Panthers, who lost their starting quarterback (Joe McLaughlin) and left tackle (Sam Curtius) to injury last week, as well as a big step in the Comets' maturation process.
"We've had so many tough games this year, this is just added to the list basically," said Beck, whose team is 21st in the 6A power rankings. "This has probably been the toughest schedule top to bottom that I've ever coached, ever. It's just been really challenging."
South Medford will turn to sophomores Craig Contreras and Jake Sager to offset the loss of McLaughlin and Curtius, respectively. Both have varsity experience this season even beyond having to go the distance in the second half last week after McLaughlin was lost to a broken foot and Curtius to a tear of his ACL, PCL and meniscus in his left knee.
"Sam was really starting to come into his own as left tackle and really was playing well so that's discouraging," Singler said of the senior's injuries, "and with Joe it was kind of the same thing. He really played well and helped lead his team to three really tough conference wins in a row so we're going to miss him, too."
Contreras played against South Eugene and Sheldon before finishing up last week's 38-3 win over North Medford. He's also been the junior varsity starter and is 10-for-20 for 145 yards against varsity competition. Sager has played exclusively on the varsity, opening the season as the starting left tackle, and was a playoff call-up a year ago.
"I really don't think there will be much of a difference for us because (Contreras) has proven himself through the passing leagues and playing down at the JV that he can play varsity right now," said Panthers senior center Alex Hathaway. "And Jake's been with us all year after playing with us in the playoffs as a freshman so it's nothing new to him."
The Panthers likely will rely on a running game spearheaded by Nick Phillips and Ben Casebier to take pressure off Contreras, as well as a defense that leads the SWC with only 186 yards allowed per game.
"The strength of our ballclub definitely is on defense," said Singler, "and they're going to have a big challenge this week against Crater because they are a multiple pro offense and they hit you in so many different ways. We'll be tested, not only up front but at the linebacker position and the secondary."
Quarterback Chase Mackey has had his ups and downs during his senior year but when he's on, the Comets have been tough to stop. Mackey is a legitimate threat to run as well as take to the air, with 201 yards gained on the ground and another 748 by passing.
With Ty Wolf and Carlos Higuera in the backfield, Crater can pound away at a defense, while Kory Bennett is another multi-dimensional threat with his ability to run the fly sweep or get downfield for a big catch. RJ Morgan has led the Comets in receiving with 282 yards on 24 catches while Dakota Massey is one of Crater's more dependable options.
South Medford counters with a linebacker corps, led by Pat Alexander, Joel Goin and Anthony Gomez, that have continued to fly around the field and make plays. Their ability to keep that streak going will definitely be tested by all the different sets the Comets are able to throw out on offense.
"We've got to win the battle up front on both sides of the ball," said Beck. "If we do that then I feel pretty good about stuff and I think Bill would say the same thing."
The Comets played last week without standout linebacker Derrick Turituri but Beck said he's "probable" to return tonight and should help key Crater's frontline surge.
NORTH MEDFORD AT ROSEBURG — North Medford's starting quarterback, sophomore Troy Fowler, suffered a concussion in last week's 38-3 loss to South Medford and will not be available for tonight's game. His status for the play-in round will be re-evaluated next week.
As a replacement, the Black Tornado (2-6, 1-5 SWC) has worked out senior Jordan Towe, sophomore Tristen Holmes and junior Micah Brown this week. Towe has served as North's backup QB this season in a limited role but was not with the team last week and that opened the door for Holmes to step in for the second half against the Panthers.
Brown is an exceptional athlete who offers another intriguing option with his running ability and will get the start tonight, with Towe also expected to see some action. Tornado head coach Mike Mitchell said Holmes has proven too valuable as a receiver and cornerback and doesn't want to make a panic move and take him away from those responsibilities.
Senior Evan Hisey has all but locked up the SWC rushing title heading into the game, with his 859 yards leading runner-up Anthony Mattie of Grants Pass by 184 yards, and he'll likely receive a generous amount of carries again in Roseburg (3-5, 2-4).
Roseburg senior quarterback Hayden Lent provides a dual-threat option, passing for 905 yards and running for another 306. Jake Heverly leads the running attack with 528 yards, while Brendon Hopkins is the top perimeter threat with 14 catches for 249 yards.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry