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Gridiron trio reach perfection entering the playoffs

Every team seeks perfection, but few actually attain it.

In the case of three Southern Oregon football teams, however, perfection was secured this past Friday as Ashland, Butte Falls and Illinois Valley each wrapped up the regular season with undefeated records.

The trio are among only 14 football teams in Oregon with unblemished records heading into the state playoffs.

"They think it's pretty awesome and totally unexpected," Butte Falls coach Randy Stephenson says of the feeling around town. "We knew we were going to be competitive this year, but never, ever thought we'd be undefeated."

Butte Falls wrapped up the Class 1A District 2 title last Friday with a 46-0 triumph over Prospect, improving the Loggers to 9-0 overall and 8-0 in league play.

"It's not us coaches, it's the kids who have dedicated themselves to making this happen," adds Stephenson. "Their hard work has paid off."

It's been 17 years since a Butte Falls team has gone undefeated in the regular season and, in that 1990 campaign, the Loggers went 8-0 in the regular season before eventually losing in the second round of the state playoffs.

Butte Falls will make its first state playoff appearance since 1993 when it hosts Perrydale at 1 p.m. on Nov. 10, and Stephenson says the sophomore-heavy squad has high hopes of carrying over their success rate into the playoffs.

"I don't even know if they realize what they've accomplished already because they're so focused on the playoffs," says the fourth-year coach. "I think it'll sink in someday, but right now these kids want a championship."

Buoyed by the play of senior Joey Knighton and junior Josh Dyck, the 15-deep Loggers have outscored teams by an average score of about 40-9. The single-wing attack used by Butte Falls has been a staple in Stephenson's years with the school, while the defensive effort has been a pleasant surprise considering this is the first season the Loggers have had the numbers to hone their abilities in practice.

"What they've learned up until now, they've learned in games," says Stephenson, whose team missed out on the playoffs by one game last year. "But obviously they've learned it well because our defense has been real good."

Another key has been the continued development of the team's eight sophomores, led by Codey Myers, Josh McGonagle and Harley Casillas.

"With the eight sophomores we have, we should be in the thick of things for the next couple years as long as they all stick around," says Stephenson.

As for this year, the coach says a deep run through the playoffs will simply be icing on the cake.

"Win, lose or draw Saturday, nothing's going to take away how proud I am of these kids," says Stephenson.

That same sentiment is echoed by Ashland coach Charlie Hall, whose Grizzlies clinched their first playoff berth since 2000 and first league title since 1998 with their 10-0 run thus far.

"I thought it would be a little more where we'd try to go get our first winning season since I've been here," says the third-year coach, "then I thought maybe we'd creep into the playoffs after that, and maybe get a conference title sometime after that. I didn't expect it to happen all at once. But like any sport, once you get momentum and the kids gain confidence, it can go a long way."

Unlike Butte Falls, however, Ashland found itself in a tight battle seemingly each week during the regular season. The Grizzlies have won half their games by eight points or less, including a 16-14 win over Crater and a 15-8 win over Klamath Union that helped them land the Southern Sky crown.

"Every game has been a battle for us just about, especially in our conference," says Hall. "You're talking less than 10 points separated first place and third place in terms of the teams we played against. We just happened to come up with some big plays and probably had a lot of luck involved there, but the kids have taken that and run with it and are enjoying all that comes with it."

Hall credits the Grizzlies' team chemistry and a large senior class that has paid its dues to get to this point as the reasons why Ashland has been able to have such success thus far.

"Every week it's somebody different who's stepped up for us," says Hall. "It hasn't been one particular guy, it's been everybody."

Illinois Valley's perfect season is another that has been a long time coming, with the Cougars posting their first-ever 10-win, undefeated season en route to their first Class 4A Skyline Conference championship. The Cougars didn't win a game only three years ago, and the program once had a string of 20 straight losses before ending the slump in 1997.

Perry Sheehan helped get the ball rolling for IV, leading the Cougars to their first-ever appearance in the state playoffs in 2000, and Bob Thornhill picked up the torch in 2002 and has led his team to new heights.

In an uncanny twist, Illinois Valley (10-0, 5-0 Skyline) will host Marist in two weeks in only its second-ever playoff game. Marist beat the Cougars 26-8 in the first round of the state playoffs in 2000.

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SEEDING AT STATE TOURNAMENTS is a tricky proposition, and it isn't done for any sport in Oregon.

But considering a setup that has the third-ranked North Medford volleyball team opening the eight-team Class 6A state tournament against top-ranked Jesuit on Friday in Hillsboro, one wonders if it may be time to give it some more thought.

It's ridiculous to have two of the top three ranked teams in any sport meet in an opening round. While the winner retains hopes for a state title, the best the losing team can hope for is a fourth-place finish.

No other matchup at the 6A tournament is as exaggerated as the one between the Crusaders (38-1-1) and Black Tornado (30-5-1). The only other opening round game pitting two ranked teams is No. 2 Central Catholic against No. 9 Sheldon, but even that is more reasonable than what's in store for North and Jesuit.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com