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Determined Comets aim for big step in SWC

Bruised and a little bewildered, the Crater football team will be looking to take a big step tonight in the Southwest Conference when it plays host to South Medford at 7 p.m. at Dutch Meyer Field.

The Comets (2-1, 0-1 SWC) found immediate success at the Class 6A level, with wins over McNary and McMinnville to open the season, but fell apart last Friday under rain-soaked conditions against Thurston in Springfield.

Minus last year's leading tackler, linebacker Garrett Alner, due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in Week 2 and early-season dynamo Cole Berriochoa, who sprained a medial collateral ligament in that same game, the Comets were a team in transition against the Colts. Even though Crater was able to take a 3-0 lead into halftime, the second half was clearly dominated by Thurston, which scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to deny the Comets in the SWC opener.

"It's kind of like we played in a fog," said Crater head coach John Beck. "We played probably our worst game on our offensive line, for sure this year and maybe even last year. We just didn't play well and we couldn't find a rhythm."

To a man, according to senior lineman Zach Zelecki, the Comets have vowed to turn things up a notch from this point forward.

"We've got a little chip on our shoulder after that Thurston loss and we're going to get after you from now on," he said. "Everybody's demeanor has changed a lot."

Whether all that will matter remains to be seen. South Medford boasts a similar 2-1 overall record, but the Panthers are coming off a 31-7 dismantling of North Medford and appear to be gaining their team identity. Tailback Kevin Gilmore rumbled his way to 217 yards on the ground and joined fellow senior Josh Havird in scoring a pair of touchdowns.

"I'm just hoping to be competitive with those guys," said Beck, whose Crater program hasn't faced South Medford since the Southern Oregon Conference days in 2005. "That big ol' Gilmore just slams it around all over the place over there and they've got a really good offensive line with (Kevin) Thibeault, who's as good of an offensive lineman as you're going to find in the state."

The Panthers enter tonight's game averaging 321.7 yards and 26.7 points per game. Gilmore leads the SWC with 427 yards and six TDs on 66 carries. Defensively, South is allowing a SWC-best 220.3 yards per game to go with only 17.3 points allowed — just behind Crater's average of 15 points per game.

"We've got to know where Havird is every single play and try to shut down their run game, which not a lot of people have been successfully doing against South," said Beck. "It's going to be a real challenge, but we like a challenge."

The Comets have plenty of weapons still at their disposal to counter the Panthers, most notably quarterback Tyler Turituri and tailback Derek Cartwright on the offensive side of the ball.

Turituri ran for 103 yards on 17 carries against Thurston but managed only 11 passing yards thanks to the conditions last week. The senior certainly proved last year that he's capable of airing it out to complement his big runs.

"They like to get the ball in Turituri's hands and he can cause you problems, as a runner and a thrower," said South Medford head coach Bill Singler.

Both teams thrived in different classifications since the redistricting in 2006, and Singler said he has no doubt that the Comets are more than ready to compete again at the state's highest level — as exemplified by last year's home win over North Medford.

"Crater's a helluva program," said Singler. "John's got that thing going over there. It doesn't matter what level they were, they're a very competitive football team and we know that. They're well-coached and they've got enough athletes over there that they cause you some discomfort."

"We know we have our hands full," he added of tonight's clash. "If our team comes out flat, I'd be very disappointed because I know Crater is going to treat this game as a huge game because of their effort last week up at Thurston. I know they're going to be bringing a lot of energy to the game and we'll need to match that."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com