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SOU’s Struck enjoying life back in the valley

After playing at three other schools, the Crater alum embracing chance to playing close to home

ASHLAND — In a way, things came full circle for Matt Struck this past weekend.

For the first time in nearly six years, Struck played a football game in the Rogue Valley. The former Crater standout who graduated in 2016, with family and friends in the stands, led the Southern Oregon football program he grew up watching to a thrilling 34-33 comeback win over Carroll College on Sept. 25, giving the Raiders their first win at Raider Stadium in nearly two years.

More than anything, though, it was “dedication week” for SOU, with players dedicating the week to somebody close, and both practicing and playing in their honor.

For Struck, the dedication was for his mom, which made the wild win — and post-game congratulations — that much sweeter.

“She’s been through a lot of stuff health-wise: COVID, she was in the hospital; cancer, she battled and overcame that. So it’s just a testament to her to have the strength and will to keep fighting,” Struck said, adding she’s doing a lot better now. “It was an emotional deal. … For me, having that person at the game and then having that sort of outcome, it was a really special deal.”

Coming back to the Rogue Valley to finish his college career is something Struck might not have even entertained when the summer first began. Now, as Struck plays the role of the local kid leading the local college football team, it’s something he’s taking advantage of and most certainly enjoying.

“I never really thought it would happen,” Struck said. “It’s really cool coming back and essentially still being a quarterback in the valley. Leaving school, going to college and then coming back, you’re still a quarterback here. It’s been fun.”

That includes savoring the opportunity to have those closest to him who haven’t had many chances to see him play since he last took a snap for Crater in the Class 5A state playoffs in 2015.

Struck will get to play his second home game in as many weeks this Saturday when Southern Oregon hosts rival and No. 18-ranked Eastern Oregon. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Raider Stadium.

“With them coming (to last Saturday’s game), it just made that comeback and the scene after the game a lot more surreal and a lot more special because it wasn’t just a win, it was a hard-fought, hard-earned win,” Struck said. “It was just good seeing them and them getting to see a different version player-wise of me compared to when I was in high school.”

While stickers on suitcases to show where you’ve traveled might not be in vogue these days, Struck’s journey back to playing football in the valley has been a long one — and that might be saying it mildly.

He spent two seasons at Riverside City College, one of the top junior college programs in California. He then moved from southern California to Idaho to play at Idaho State, where he was from 2018 until the end of the 2020 calendar year.

Once the start of 2021 rolled around, Struck transferred again, this time to Missouri State, appearing in all seven of the Bears’ games played in the spring after their season was postponed due to the pandemic.

He intended to transfer to another NCAA Division I school this summer as he started his graduate school work, but missed the deadline to do so since it was already late in July and training camps were set to open within days.

As it turns out, that missed deadline turned into SOU’s gain.

He got in contact with former Crater teammate Mitch Malot, who’s now on the SOU coaching staff as an assistant under head coach Charlie Hall. Things moved quickly, with Struck deciding to come home and play for Hall and the Raiders.

“I had to do some thinking,” Struck said. “All signs pointed (to SOU) for my future and however that might shape out. This place just seemed like it would benefit me the most and essentially coming back home and ballin’ out here.”

“I just took the approach of ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ because we were very committed to Trent (Banner) and Trent was very committed to us,” said Hall, noting that Banner was the Raiders’ starting quarterback entering fall camp.

Struck came off the bench in the Raiders’ first game of the 2021 season, a 42-28 loss to Rocky Mountain College. The next week was supposed to be SOU’s first home since November 2019, but wildfire smoke forced the game to be pushed back a week and then moved to Autzen Stadium in Eugene.

Between SOU’s first and second game, Banner decided to leave the program due to personal reasons, handing the keys to the Raiders’ offense to Struck.

And it’s been his job ever since.

The Raiders are 2-1 in games Struck has started this season, with Saturday’s win over Carroll seeing the former Comet throw for 278 yards and four touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone. It was the first time that SOU had come back from a deficit of 20 points or more in the fourth quarter since 1998.

Struck ranks in the top 20 nationally in three different categories — 19th in passing yards (1,032) and passing yards per game (258), and 11th in touchdown passes (10). He also was named the NAIA Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for five touchdowns in the 42-7 blowout win over Montana State-Northern at Autzen.

“What’s amazing to me in his short time here is the chemistry he has with the receivers,” said Hall, who’s doubling as SOU’s offensive coordinator this season. “It’s like these kids have been playing together in street football and they just kind of know. Are they running the plays totally in-system? No, not always. Bryce (Goggin) will make some adjustments based on what the defense is giving him and Matt is anticipating those adjustments.

“That’s unique and rare for players who have had that short of a time together.”

The Raiders’ fifth-year coach has also been impressed with Struck’s calm demeanor in the pocket.

“He’s not fazed by too much. If he gets hit or there’s pressure coming, he’s going to sit in there and throw the ball, take his shots and live to play another day,” Hall said. “He’s a great competitor, he’s got great poise and he’s super tough. I think those are all the things you look for in a quarterback.”

When he went to college out of the area, Struck only came home to visit for a week or two and then flew back out when his visit was over.

These days, he’s on the daily Central Point-to-Ashland grind, making the commute early in the morning for practice.

“I’ve been restricted on time and opportunities to go do stuff. It’s kind of good, especially coming into the program so late,” Struck said. “I need that structure to learn everything and just get into the program, learn the offense and rep stuff out. It’s been beneficial, for sure, not to have that freedom ever since I’ve been home.”

Ask him about playing close to home and around those who support him and you’ll get a smile that beams with appreciation for the opportunity he now has.

It’s the same one you see on the sideline after each touchdown pass he throws that helps SOU get another win.

“Just the look in his eye, last week there was a great sense of satisfaction,” Hall said. “It was a very emotional game for him, and I know his mom has had some health issues and he’s been here to help support her with that.”

Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Southern Oregon University quarterback Matt Struck is tied for 11th in the NAIA with 10 touchdown passes this season. Four of those came in the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s comeback win over Carroll College at Raider Stadium. (Larry Stauth Jr. / for the Mail Tribune)