CENTRAL POINT — A school record-tying eight wins and an outright league championship for the first time in school history was cause for celebration at Crater last season.

CENTRAL POINT — A school record-tying eight wins and an outright league championship for the first time in school history was cause for celebration at Crater last season.

Fans packed Dutch Meyer Field, thrilled that the hometown Comets had a state quality team for the first time in more than 20 years.

But the celebration didn't last long. In the first round of the state playoffs, Bend tailback Mark Speck ran for 248 yards and four touchdowns as the underdog Lava Bears pinned a stunning 38-24 defeat on the Comets.

Crater coach John Beck blamed the playoff loss in part to a soft regular-season schedule. The Comets met just two ranked teams — Sherwood and Klamath Union — all season.

"We got in a tough game (against Bend) and couldn't finish," Beck says. "We just weren't battle tested enough."

That won't be an issue in 2007. The Comets' first two games are against Northwest Conference heavyweights Wilsonville and Sherwood. They meet a third playoff team from 2006 — Hermiston — in week 7.

"We felt we had to upgrade our schedule and we've certainly done that," Beck says. "It might cost us some wins but the tradeoff is, we'll be a better team in November."

Crater must replace nine first-team all-conference players, including 2006 Southern Sky Conference offensive player of the year Tyler Davis and defensive player of the year Charlie Reina.

But Beck remains optimistic. Powered by a big and experienced offensive line, the Comets figure to outmuscle and run over many opponents. And while most of the team's skill position players lack experience, they don't lack talent, Beck says.

"Up front, we're going to be better than we've been since I've been at Crater," says Beck, entering his fourth year in Central Point. "We've got to replace our skill guys, but we've got several kids who lettered last season and they've been in the system for four years."

Center Tyson Hoffman, guard Anthony Timmerman and tackles Adam Wasniewski and Jake Stone all return in the trenches. The 6-foot-4, 317-pound Timmerman and the 6-5, 300-pound Hoffman could be among the better linemen in the state, Beck says. Senior Cody Osuna, no twig himself at 6-5 and 265, will start at the other guard spot.

Wide receiver and free safety Bryce Peila is the Comets' lone returning skill position player, and he should find the spotlight often now that Reina and Davis are out of the picture. The 6-2, 190-pound Peila drew rave reviews at the Linfield team camp in June.

"He flat-backed a kid from Sherwood while running the ball and flattened another kid from Churchill when he was on defense," Beck says. "Bryce covers ground and makes tackles. He's kind of a secret in Southern Oregon, but we think he could be one of better defensive backs in the state. And he's pretty darn good on offense, too."

Senior Nick Brothers takes over at quarterback from the graduated Cory Staniforth, who passed for more than 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. Brothers doesn't have Staniforth's arm strength, Beck says, but he's a better runner and scrambler.

"We'll probably use a shorter passing game and take advantage of Nick's ability to run the ball on option plays and that sort of thing," Beck says. "Nick did a great job in passing league. He has command of our offense."

A three-way battle has emerged at tailback between senior Zach Boskovich and juniors D.J. Pree and Danny Mitchell.

Boskovich, a first-team all-conference rover back last season, is a hard-nosed runner. Pree's forte is his quickness and elusiveness while Mitchell might be the fastest player on the team, Beck says.

"Those are three good backs," Beck says. "They're all capable of being starters and it's nice to have depth at that position, especially when you've got a guy (Boskovich) who's playing full-time on defense."

Another spirited battle has developed at fullback between juniors Kos Ray and Kenny Faundrich.

Lining up opposite Peila at wide receiver likely will be 6-5, 220-pound senior Drew Runberg. Junior Josh Lokeno, a 5-11, 150-pound speedster, also expects to see the field at wideout.

An up-and-coming player to watch, Beck says, is junior tight end/linebacker Dario Mobley.

"He won a district title in wrestling last season and hadn't been on the mats for a couple years," Beck says. "We're really excited to see what he can do in football."

Defensively, Wasniewski returns on the front line, Boskovich at rover, Peila at free safety and Marcus Havniear at linebacker.

Ray, Faundrich and Mobley have all had good moments at linebacker this summer, Beck says, while Ryan Baxter and Beau Feeley, a transfer from Arizona, have established themselves at defensive end.

Lokeno and Brothers, who figure to be two of the school's best basketball players in the winter, are the likely starters at cornerback.

Brothers will handle the punting chores — he was one of the state's best a year ago — and could also be the placekicker.

"We thought we had a chance to go deep in the playoffs last season," Beck says, "but we couldn't even make it past the first round. This year, we're taking more of a blue-collar approach. We're going to have our hands full just getting through the regular season."

Reach reporter Don Hunt at 776-4469, or e-mail dhunt@mailtribune.com