A good start to the football season isn't all that unfamiliar for Phoenix but, at 3-0 entering Friday's game at Molalla, the Pirates are off to their best start since winning their opening five games in 2005.
It's been an especially sweet turn of events for the Class of 2014 at Phoenix, which was thrown to the fire as sophomores in 2011 and went on to endure a winless season full of bumps and bruises.
"We have a pretty senior-heavy group this year who two years ago didn't win a game all year," said Phoenix head coach Toby Walker. "They've gained a lot of maturity on the field and, off the field, they've made gains physically and mentally."
Walker said that increased maturity from his players has been the biggest change from then to now, and he's counting on that to be the case as his Pirates handle the good times. Phoenix has cruised to easy wins over Brookings-Harbor (45-0) and Coquille (41-0), and won on its final play last Friday, 22-21, against Yreka.
"We're just starting the season and haven't even gotten to our conference season yet," cautioned Walker, "so we just have to keep the kids focused on the next game and let them understand that's the most important game on the schedule. We have a good record but we still need to get a lot better."
Beyond the play of senior quarterback Justin McCreadie, forced into a different role when scheduled starter Andrew Reynoso was lost to injury this summer, Walker said his team's play in the trenches has been pivotal.
"I always want to credit our offensive and defensive lines," said Walker. "We've won the battles up front the last three games. The times you lose those battles are usually the times when you're on the losing side of the scoreboard so that's been huge."
Seniors Izzy Rubio, Walker Woodman, Richie Davalos and Travis Treadway have joined with sophomore Kyle Botermans to establish a foundation in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
With fellow seniors Tyson Morris and Aaron Pankowski capably handling the ground attack and McCreadie, who was 14 of 22 for 238 yards and two touchdowns last week, continuing to grow as a varsity quarterback, the Pirates are merely on pace with Walker's high hopes for a group he's had for three years now.
"I was pretty optimistic when they were all sophomores and I suppose every coach is at the beginning of the year," he said in looking back. "They'd put in the work (for 2011) but what you can't teach is that game-time experience and just maturity level. They've paid their dues and taken some lumps, and they've been on both sides of this now so they know to be classy and respect your opponent."
After Friday's game at Molalla, which will present another challenge, said Walker, Phoenix will finally get into Skyline Conference play with a road trip to Hidden Valley on Sept. 27. The Pirates were picked to finish third, behind Klamath Union and Mazama, in a preseason coaches' poll but Walker views the conference crown as something that's up for grabs.
"I think the kids have the confidence they need for conference," said the fifth-year coach, "now it's just matter of playing football the way they can. It's kind of a scattered conference this year so it's going to be a matter of which team shows up and plays its best football on Friday nights."
In 2005 under then-coach Gordy Crowston, Phoenix won its first five games before suffering a 7-6 loss to Klamath Union. The Pirates went on to win their next five games before having that streak snapped by Marist in the Class 3A state semifinals.
Other than the winless slate in 2011, Phoenix had opened each season since 2008 with wins in two of its first three games. During that stretch, the Pirates also reached the state semifinals in 2009 — Walker's first year at the helm.
INJURY REPORTS typically are saved for the players but last Friday's football game between South Medford and Thurston offered a twist.
On one side, Thurston head coach and athletic director Justin Starck painfully stood with a lean thanks to a severe herniated disc that he was scheduled to have surgery on Monday. With standing proving to be too much for any length of time, Starck spent the night in the coaches' box high above Spiegelberg Stadium.
On the other side, South Medford head coach Bill Singler leaned on his crutches and didn't let that slow him down as he scooted along the sidelines. Singler suffered a tear in his Achilles' heel earlier in the day when he said he was probably going up stairs at the high school a little faster than he should have been between classes, slipped on a step and then came down too abruptly on the one below.
"I felt it right away but it wasn't an intense pain like they say it can be," he said.
Singler said he will remain on crutches for six weeks, then move to a boot and, afterward, begin therapy. He has been advised that surgery isn't a necessity so that's something he will forego.
Starck said he will miss practice this week but hoped to be in the coaches' box for Friday's game against Roseburg.
ROGUE VALLEY ADVENTIST was recently recognized by the Oregon School Activities Association as one of only 11 high schools that have been ejection-free since recognition of such statistics began in 2006.
Joining RVA as the only ejection-free schools for eight years running were Central Christian, East Linn Christian, Huntington, Life Christian, McKenzie, New Hope Christian, North Lake, Santiam Christian, Spray and Willamette Valley Christian.
Ejection-free schools for the 2012-13 school year, with the number of years since 2006, included Butte Falls (four), Illinois Valley (four), North Medford (one), Phoenix (three), Prospect (six) and Rogue River (two).
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry