New-look Cavemen, Tornado clash Friday
It isn't often that a football coaching staff makes wholesale personnel changes partway through a season, but that's precisely what the Grants Pass Cavemen did three weeks into the 1998 campaign.
It wasn't necessarily the losses to Central Catholic and Ashland to start the season that convinced Grants Pass coach Tom Blanchard to clean house on the defensive side of the ball. Rather, it was the lack of quickness that caught his eye.
So Blanchard and defensive coordinator Grant Martinsen inserted five new starters on defense the following week, and the Cavers (3-2, 2-1 Southern Oregon Conference) haven't lost since.
They'll get a stern test Friday night when they meet North Medford (4-1) at Spiegelberg Stadium. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m.
When we got beat by Ashland it was obvious that we lacked team speed and that we needed to make some changes, Blanchard says. We moved a couple of players around and brought in four or five new kids.
The new-look Cavemen sent shockwaves around the SOC on Sept. 25 when they blasted Crater 35-7. Then, following a bye, they racked up a 52-14 win over North Eugene last Thursday.
Grants Pass looks like the most improved team in the Southern Oregon Conference, North Medford coach Rod Rumrey says. They're a different team than they were at the start.
The biggest changes were inserting junior inside linebackers Matt Major and Len Nuanez, who both tip the scales at just over 200 pounds, and moving Grant Slagle from cornerback to defensive end.
The 5-foot-9, 160-pound Slagle is a very quick, hardnosed kid that other teams have a tough time blocking, Blanchard says. He's small for a defensive end but he flies to the ball and makes plays.
The most consistent player on defense, though, has been Jake Leair, a 205-pound defense tackle who finished runner-up at the Class 4A state wrestling tournament last spring.
One good thing that's come out of this is that we now only have one player (Slagle) going both ways, Blanchard says. Our defense is not only quicker but the boys aren't getting as tired as they were, either.
The Black Tornado, meanwhile, comes into the game nursing numerous injuries. North went into last week's game against Crater without three defensive starters and lost three others before the night was through.
Although North walked off with a 28-20 win, it also gave up 490 yards in total offense to the Comets.
Tight end Jason Brownell, who has missed three games with a torn knee ligament, isn't expected to play Friday and offensive tackle Ryan Stegall, who hasn't been in uniform since the Tornado's season-opening win over Roseburg, remains a question mark.
We're not sure we're going to get any of these kids back Friday, Rumrey says. This is as beat-up of a football team as I've had in a long time.
Fortunately for Rumrey, his backfield remains intact and it just might be the best in the SOC. Quarterback Nate Mayben remains on top of the SOC passing ratings (42-of-73, 671 yards, 8 TDs), tailback Steve DeClerk ranks No. 4 in rushing (466 yards, 6 TDs) and fullback Ken Halpin is No. 5 in rushing (414 yards, 4 TDs) and No. 4 in receiving (14 catches, 246 yards, 2 TDs).
Halpin, a 6-foot, 190-pound junior, broke Crater's back with touchdown runs of 51-, 48- and 74 yards last week.
We feel like we have to contain Halpin if we're going to win, Blanchard says. He's got breakaway speed and he's their fullback. That's kind of scary.
GP has a fine running back of its own in Chuck Martin, who ranks No. 6 in the SOC in rushing (412 yards, 5 TDs), and an athletic quarterback in Cory Restved, a dangerous scrambler and improving passer.
The North-GP matchup has made for some nerve-wracking moments in recent years. Six of the last seven games between the two clubs have been decided by six points or less, with three of them going into overtime.
Some of those games, it came down to who had the ball last, Rumrey says.