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Revamped Cavemen focus on finishing games

GRANTS PASS — No game illustrated Grants Pass' dreadful season more than its Week 5 loss to Tualatin a year ago.

The Cavemen had rallied from a 14-0 deficit to tie the contest at 14-all and had generated a long drive late in the fourth quarter, seeking to complete a comeback win on the road against a ranked team. Then the stadium lights failed and the power wasn't restored for 45 minutes.

Stripped of its momentum, GP turned the ball over on downs, Tualatin made a couple of big plays and then kicked a field goal with seven seconds left to steal the win.

A week later, the Cavemen squandered a 21-7 lead against South Medford and lost another game in the waning minutes.

By the time the regular season ended in late October, Grants Pass found itself with a seven-game losing streak.

"Other than the Sheldon game, we were in all of them," said Grants Pass coach John Musser, whose team finished 0-5 in conference play and 2-8 overall. "But we just didn't make plays when it counted and our confidence really waned late in the season."

The Cavemen lost 22 seniors, including athletic quarterback Jody Romick and first-team all-conference standouts Brock Dean and John Tardieu, to graduation. But they return nearly their entire offensive line and they've been significantly enhanced by wide receiver/defensive back Dalton Cervantes, the conference's reigning 100-meter track champion who sat out football last year, and by the addition of brothers Nate and Steven Etheridge, who transferred in from San Pedro, Calif.

Nate Etheridge, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound senior, "is a great run blocker who catches everything," Musser said. "He's a big-time tight end and he's a 4.0 student."

Steven Etheridge, a 6-0, 215-pound sophomore, is competing for a starting spot at inside linebacker.

Even without the transfers, Grants Pass figured to be formidable along its offensive front. Tackles Taylor Westerman and Zach Phillips, guard Cody Ketelson and center Dustin Randal return as starters, while guards Brenden Nott and Nate Scott are back with extensive playing time.

Junior Alex Tardieu will serve as a solid bookend opposite Nate Etheridge at tight end.

"Alex started for us last year but now we can go to double-tight sets with 6-5 kids on both sides," Musser said. "We'll have some big kids out there to throw the ball to."

The main beneficiary of GP's experienced line could be tailback Alex Albright, a 5-11, 185-pound junior who showed flashes of brilliance last season until he injured his wrist. Like Cervantes, Albright is a sprinter in track.

"Albright is going to be our go-to guy running the football," Musser said. "We run the zone scheme, and he's a tremendous zone back because he's patient and has great vision. He does a really nice job of seeing the cutback lanes."

Taking over at quarterback is Mason Mahaffie, a cerebral senior who lacks arm strength but always seems to deliver the ball on time and to the open receiver, Musser said.

"He had a great summer and put himself in position to have a good senior year," Musser said.

Mahaffie's targets will include not only Nate Etheridge and Tardieu but also wide receivers Kolton Mahr and Riley Veriech and H-back Hunter Fields. Mahr returns as a starter.

Musser expects his offense to be a grind-it-out, ball-control bunch with an inclination for play-action passes.

"It's an old-school formula, but you can win with it and it fits our personnel," Musser said.

Such an approach should also aid a defense that allowed more yards and points than any other team in the Southwest Conference last season. It figured to be improved, anyway.

Three starters return: outside linebacker Fields, inside linebacker Jose Cruz and free safety Mahr, although Mahr is being pushed by junior Austin Beard, who turned heads throughout summer workouts. Other major contributors will be ends Randal, Nathan Etheridge and Garrett Meadows, nose guard Nathan Whisenhunt, tackle Parker Goodwin, inside linebacker Taylor Haycraft and cornerback Veriech.

Aiding the defensive cause via field position will be Tardieu, a standout punter who was second-team all-conference a year ago.

"He (Tardieu) went to several punting camps and combines in the offseason," Musser said.

The Cavemen will be playing in a revised Southwest Conference that has added Crater and Thurston. The expanded league now features eight teams and is part of a newly implemented, statewide hybrid system that puts every team in the playoffs.

Grants Pass would like to think it could get there under the old system, when the top four teams in the SWC advanced. The Cavemen open the season Friday at Tualatin.

"We don't have the two or three super players that we had last year, but we have our fair share of talent and we've got far more depth," said Musser, adding that he expects only two or three players to go both ways. "We hope that means we won't fizzle late in games this year.

"Our objective is to be more physical and to finish games. That's the battle cry from Grants Pass this year."

Don Hunt is a freelance writer who lives in Meridian, Idaho. Reach him at dwhunt15@yahoo.com