Crater boys basketball coach Chris Schmerbach knows what a championship high school basketball team looks like, having coached one at Marist in 2008.
This year’s Comets, he points out, are similar to that Spartans team both in terms of makeup and style of play, but Crater’s third-year head coach would rather talk about another characteristic the two teams have in common.
“The cool thing about this team and the reason why they’re so successful is they’re always hungry for the next challenge,” said Schmerbach, who took over Crater in 2015 after a six-year stint as an assistant coach at Southern Oregon University. “They want to see what they’re made of. And when you have a team like that, that’s hungry and that wants to challenge themselves, you feel like you have an opportunity every night.”
And for the Comets, the opportunities — much like the stakes — just keep getting bigger.
Second-seeded Crater plays seventh-seeded South Albany tonight in the quarterfinals of the OSAA Class 5A boys basketball tournament at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis. If the Comets win, they’ll advance to the state semifinals for the first time in program history and play either sixth-seeded Mountain View or third-seeded Thurston on Thursday for a spot in the 5A state championship game.
In other quarterfinal action today, top-seeded Silverton takes on eighth-seeded Churchill, and fourth-seeded Wilsonville faces fifth-seeded Springfield. The eight-team tourney wraps up with championship, third-fifth-place and fourth-sixth-place games Friday.
The Comets, who have never placed higher than fourth (1990), are 24-1 and have won 14 games in a row, including a hand-wringing 51-43 victory over Hermiston last Friday that clinched for Crater its fifth final-site appearance and first since 2009.
The Midwestern League will have four representatives in Corvallis, but it was Crater that claimed the conference championship with a single blemish — a 64-45 setback at Springfield Jan. 5.
The Comets tore through the MWL gauntlet with an efficient offense geared toward challenging opponents inside and a defense rooted in its ability to wipe away mistakes with size — they have four players between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-9 — and athleticism.
Senior wing Kiefer Edwards, who stands 6-6, is the team’s most consistent playmaker, averaging 20.5 points and 11.5 rebounds, but the Comets are plenty deep. Senior guard Mason Vranes averages 14.8 points, sophomore guard Jayden Vranes 8.2 points, 5.6 assists and 3 steals and freshman Nathan Bittle, a 6-9 forward, averages 8.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.8 blocks.
“Offensively, our goals are we want to play fast and we want to play in space,” Schmerbach said. “And then conceptually, with our size and our athleticism, we like to play inside-out. We really have focused on getting the ball inside, then if the defense collapses we kick it out to our shooters outside.”
Employing that strategy, the Comets steamrolled most of their regular-season opponents, winning all but four of those games by double digits, but when the shots stopped falling at a critical juncture during their most important game in years it was the defense that saved the day.
After Hermiston cut a nine-point halftime deficit to two with 2 ½ minutes to go, Kiefer Edwards swatted away a Bulldogs shot attempt inside, and about a minute later Jayden Vranes cut off a lazy crosscourt pass for a steal and a game-clinching layup.
The sequence underscored Schmerbach’s claim that his team’s largest, most meaningful steps this season had less to do with all those highlight-reel alley-oop dunks and more with grit and determination on defense.
“We’re really focused on defense,” he said, “and I feel like if anything got us here it’s our improvement on that end of the floor. And obviously when you have 6-6 and 6-8 protecting the rim, it’s going to make you pretty good defensively.”
That defense will be tested again tonight.
Schmerbach said South Albany (20-5) is an experienced team with a great attacking point guard in Jaden Guilford and a 6-3 all-state forward, Jake Costello, who’s “one of the best wings in the state.”
Crater pummeled the Rebels 78-55 back on Dec. 7, but Schmerbach said convincing his team the Rebels are dangerous won’t be difficult because, as Crater has seen in its own conference, teams improve.
If the Comets advance to the semis, they could face a familiar foe in Thurston (19-6), a team Crater swept during the regular season in two of the Comets’ more competitive games — 45-43 on Jan. 25 and 63-56 on Feb. 23.
Schmerbach said the Comets have received tremendous support in Central Point from the administration and students, and pointed out his team’s met every challenge so far as it’s evolved from playoff contender to league champion to state title contender.
Now, he said, the fun begins.
“Overcoming that hurdle (against Hermiston) was a big step for our guys and we’ve taken the stance that now, we’ve done all the hard work,” he said. “We’ve won the league championship, we’ve got to the final site, and now we’re going to play and have fun.
“We’re getting a chance to show the rest of the state how Crater plays and we’re really excited to show our brand of basketball and to show the people up north what we can do.”
NORTH MEDFORD GIRLS: The fifth-seeded Black Tornado (18-8) will look to make team history today against fourth-seeded West Linn (23-3) in the quarterfinals of the Class 6A girls basketball tournament at the Chiles Center in Portland.
North Medford, the Southwest Conference champion, can earn the program’s first-ever birth in the state semifinals with a win over the Lions, who enter the eight-team tournament on a seven-game winning streak.
North Medford is led by senior post Megan Fossen, who averages about 16 points and 11 rebounds per game, ranking in the top 10 statewide in both categories. Also for North Medford, senior wing Rylee Karrick averages 12 points per game.
The Black Tornado is making its first final-site appearance since 2008 and sixth all-time, and will be gunning for its second tournament trophy after earning the fifth-place plaque in 1998.
West Linn presents a unique challenge, says North Medford head coach Tim Karrick.
“They’re pretty young and have some really young post players, but they’re really talented,” he said. “They’re just solid all around, but we do have some size to match up with them, with (Adriane) McLemore, Fossen and (Julia) Graff.”
Fossen has been North’s best player all season, and she showed her worth in a round of 16 playoff win over Central Catholic on Friday, erupting for 25 points and 14 rebounds. The Black Tornado won the game big, 62-34.
“I think that was one of our best games of the year,” Karrick said, “so we’re hoping to carry that on and keep it going up here (in Portland).”
As far as keys go, Karrick said his team must play to its strengths to advance.
“Obviously, we’re a defensive-minded team,” he said. “We need to play good defense and not give up easy buckets, and execute on offense. If we do that, we’ll give ourselves a chance to be successful."