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Cavemen strive to overcome late-season woes

Two weeks ago the Grants Pass High football team appeared destined for its best season since winning the Southern Oregon Conference championship in 1994.

Led by a bone-rattling defense and a punishing running attack, the Cavemen were 5-1 through six games with their only loss coming against No. 2-ranked Roseburg.

Then disaster struck.

Linebacker Matt Major, perhaps the best defensive player in the SOC, went down with a season-ending knee injury during a 23-7 victory over Crater on Oct. 15.

To make matters worse tailback Brandon Hamada, who at the time was the leading rusher in the SOC, and fullback Jesse Lara went down with severe ankle sprains.

A couple of days later wide receivers Gabe Barbee and Robert Lesher were suspended for disciplinary reasons.

Coach Tom Blanchard must have felt like the captain of the Titanic.

Everything just kind of fell apart in the span of a few days, Blanchard says.

The Cavemen are trying to right the ship in time for Friday night's clash against North Medford at Spiegelberg Stadium. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m.

Both teams have already secured state playoff berths, but Friday's winner will clinch the No. 2 seed in the SOC and a home game in the first round of the playoffs.

Of the five Grants Pass players who missed last week's 17-3 non-conference loss to Bend, only Lesher is a sure bet to play Friday.

More than anything, we've got to re-establish our confidence and play with the same intensity we had earlier in the season, Blanchard says. We're beat up and we're missing some of our key people, but we've still got some talented players who can make plays.

With four of its six skill position players sidelined, GP managed just 114 yards of offense and six first downs in the loss to Bend.

Blanchard is hoping that Hamada, who racked up 641 yards rushing and eight touchdowns in the Cavemen's first five games, will be ready to play Friday. If Hamada can go, his presence will take some pressure off quarterback Nathan Olson, who had by far his worst game of the season against Bend when he completed just — of 18 passes for 12 yards.

In fairness to Olson, he had some balls dropped, Blanchard says. And we weren't able to establish the run. But like everyone else he struggled, and he knows he has to play well Friday if we're going to win.

North Medford coach Rod Rumrey is telling his players that Grants Pass might well be the best defensive team the Black Tornado will face this season, with or without Major.

They had something like eight starters back from last year (on defense) and six of them will be on the field against us, Rumrey says. They lead the Southern Oregon Conference in total defense. They don't do a lot of different things scheme-wise, but their kids are always in position and they're fundamentally sound in their technique. (Defensive coordinator) Grant Martinsen has been doing a great job with that defense for years.

The Cavemen `D' will have to be at its best to put the clamps on a Tornado offense that is averaging 414 yards and 38 points per game, tops in the SOC.

I think they've got their best team since they won the state championship (in 1993), Blanchard says. They've got six or seven kids who can beat you on offense and our scouts said they'll hit us as hard as any team we'll play.

Tornado quarterback Nate Mayben is enjoying a banner season. He's completed 71 of 111 passes (63.9 percent) for 1,442 yards, 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions and leads the SOC in passing efficiency.

He's thrown for eight TDs in the past two weeks alone.

Fullback Ken Halpin leads the SOC in scoring (16 touchdowns) and ranks No. 2 in receiving with 26 catches for 620 yards. Tailback Phil Ouellette has rushed for 579 yards and is averaging 5.8 yards per carry.

They've got so much speed at so many positions that you cringe at the thought of those kids getting the ball in the open field,'' Blanchard says.

Grants Pass unexpectedly dominated last year's matchup. Not only did the Cavers pin a 28-6 defeat on the Tornado, they also knocked several North players out of the game on clean but vicious hits.

In other SOC games Friday, Ashland visits Eagle Point and Crater ventures to Klamath Union. Roseburg has a bye, while South Medford meets North Eugene at Autzen Stadium in a non-league contest.

ASHLAND AT EAGLE POINT-- The Grizzlies will try to rebound following last week's stunning loss to Crater but will likely have to do so without quarterback Mike Allen and fullback Mac Contreras.

Allen spent most of the week in bed with mononucleosis while Contreras isn't likely to be recovered from a sprained ankle suffered against the Comets, Ashland coach Jim Nagel says.

With Allen out, Zach Hassell must go the whole way at quarterback and inside linebacker. After a slow start, he threw the ball reasonably well against Crater, completing 10-of-19 passes for 166 yards and one touchdown.

Of greater concern to Nagel is a Grizzly defense that yielded 302 yards rushing to Crater. The Grizzlies can expect another big dose of running from Eagle Point. Eagles tailback Evan Pogue has gained more than 100 yards each of the past two weeks. He piled up 136 yards against No. 2-ranked Roseburg on Oct. 15 and then last Friday had 125 yards against No. 5 Churchill.

Both teams remain in the state playoff hunt and both control their own destinies. The Grizzlies can advance with wins over Eagle Point and North Medford while the Eagles can secure a state berth with wins over Ashland and Klamath Union to close the season.

Our kids are excited about the possibilities, Eagle Point coach Mike Johnston says. We're right in the thick of it.

CRATER AT KLAMATH UNION-- The Comets snapped a four-game losing streak with last week's win over Ashland and have the ability to steamroll the smaller Pelicans.

Crater tailback Scott Toney gained 265 yards rushing on 45 carries last week, giving him 791 for the season and moving him within 27 yards of SOC rushing leader Conway Bixby of Roseburg.

With Klamath Union ranking last in the SOC in rushing defense at 269 yards per game, Toney is likely to have another big game.

Almost lost in Toney's career-best effort was a fine performance by senior wide receiver Josh Jones, who caught a pair of touchdown passes against Ashland.

He's got some size and he can jump, Crater coach Randy Heath says of the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Jones. He hasn't played since his freshman year but he's come a long way in a few weeks.

SOUTH MEDFORD VS. NORTH EUGENE-- This is the last realistic chance the Panthers have of winning a game this fall.

North Eugene's only victory this season was a 14-7 decision over Springfield on Sept. 17 and the Highlanders failed to win a game last year.