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Phoenix's Vern Hull is focused on leading his team into the Class 3A playoffs

Pirates' driving force

PHOENIX ' What looked like a costly blow to an already floundering Phoenix football team turned into a nightmare to come for the rest of the Skyline Conference.

First, the injury bug besieged the Pirates. Then, a questionable call and resulting suspension took away their senior leader, Vern Hull, for the better part of two games.

Phoenix buckled down for what looked like a long season, but Hull had other thoughts. He used his time away from the field to refocus, then returned with a vengeance.

After an 0-2 start in the Skyline, the Pirates have reeled off three straight wins to earn a state playoff berth.

— That was our goal, says Hull, a two-way tackle. We know we can't win the conference now, but that playoff spot is there.

Hull, a three-year starter, provided perhaps the biggest play of Phoenix's season against Mazama.

The 17-year-old used his 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame to muscle in and block an extra-point attempt during the first half of the conference game.

The play proved to be the difference in a 7-6 victory ' the first Skyline win for Phoenix and the first blemish on Mazama's conference record in nine games, dating to last year.

While the blocked PAT propelled the Pirates on the field, it may be Hull's one-game suspension that turned the team's season fortunes.

On Sept. 19, the Pirates steamrolled to a 20-10 lead over defending Skyline champion North Valley midway through the conference-opening game.

Hull and his fellow offensive linemen were turning the vaunted Knights' defense into Swiss cheese.

But the tide turned when an official ruled early in the third quarter that Hull delivered an illegal blow to the head of a North Valley player. He was ejected from the game ' a 24-20 Phoenix loss ' then had to sit out the Pirates' next contest, as per Oregon School Activities Association rules.

It didn't look like much on the field, says Phoenix coach Gordon Crowston of the play. We looked at the film and there just wasn't anything there. We couldn't find anything.

Vern's an emo-tional player, but he's not the type of kid to do some-thing like that.

Hull's absence, along with injuries to tailback Max Boots and senior wide receiver/defensive back Martin Gonzalez, proved costly during a 22-14 loss to Hidden Valley the following week.

We've actually played pretty well all year, except that Hidden Valley game, says Crowston, who considers Hull to be the top lineman in the league. We just didn't show up.

The dropped Phoenix to 0-2 in the standings and gave Hull a vantage point he didn't welcome.

It was really hard to sit there and watch that, says Hull, who earned honorable mention all-Skyline as a sophomore and second-team honors last season. The good thing that came out of that was I was really motivated to go after it when I came back.

What followed was three wins in four games ' the lone loss coming to a quality Yreka, Calif., team ' and the No. — seed heading into the state playoffs. The playoff berth will be the second in three years for Hull as a varsity starter.

Phoenix achieved a postseason trip for the first time in eight years during Crowston's initial campaign in 2001. It lost 49-14 to Class 3A powerhouse Junction City in the first round.

Phoenix came within one game of the postseason last year, but dropped a crucial contest to rival Rogue River in the finale.

Hull was a first-year starter during the first-round thrashing three years ago, and he has come a ways with his game since.

(Junction City) was a very good team, says Hull. I've learned a lot since then.

I've gotten better on defense and have learned to use my hands more aggressively to take on my opponent.

Phoenix gets a shot at redemption with Rogue River tonight in the final regular-season contest of Hull's prep career.

I'm going to miss it, says Hull of his prep career. It's hard to explain, but I feel like I belong when I'm out there.

I just love the game.

Reach reporter Kevin Goff at 776-4480 or e-mail .