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Comets hope for triumphant return to 5A

CENTRAL POINT — The way John Beck sees it, his Crater team might be jumping from the frying pan into the fire in Oregon high school football.

Yes, the Comets are dropping from the 6A to the 5A classification, where they won two league titles and tied for another from 2006-2009 and posted an overall record of 30-15.

But Crater is in a different and far more formidable 5A conference this time around. So formidable that Beck believes it’s the top 5A circuit in the state.

“No question about it, in my mind,” Beck said in referring to new league members Ashland, Marist, Springfield, Churchill and Eagle Point. “It’s not even close.”

Beck points to Marist’s two state runner-up showings and semifinal appearance in three of the past four seasons, Ashland’s state semifinal finish a year ago and Springfield’s push to the state quarterfinals in 2013.

But the Comets have no reason to fear their new home, not after knocking helmets with the heavyweights of the Southwest Conference for the past four seasons, where they were largely competitive but never finished above fourth in the league standings.

“Our kids are used to playing against good teams and athletic kids,” Beck said. “But we have no illusions that we’re going to step into this new league and dominate it.”

Considering that Crater returns just three starters on offense and four on defense, a trip to the state playoffs — only three teams are guaranteed a berth — would be a noteworthy accomplishment.

Beck is hoping that the Comets’ hyper-speed, no-huddle offense, which produced nearly 30 points and racked up an average of nearly 80 plays per game against stiff 6A competition last season, can overcome the team’s lack of experience.

“We’ve got good skill kids, they just don’t have much varsity experience,” said Beck, who welcomes the state’s new practice guidelines that give teams three weeks to prepare for their first game.

Triggering the rapid offense — the Comets launch a play every 15 to 20 seconds — will be quarterback Matt Struck, a 6-foot, 205-pound junior who can “throw the ball into a window from 65 yards,” Beck said.

“He gets after it in the weight room and that’s really aided his arm strength,” added Beck. “He ready to take the next step and be a varsity quarterback.”

Crater’s most accomplished receiver is senior slotback Dylan Morgan, who snagged 12 touchdown receptions last season and is one of the team’s returning offensive regulars. The others are center Mitchell Malot and guard Johnny Diaz.

Seniors Colin Joseph and Justin Huff and juniors Garrett Dey and Spencer Cyr will battle for the other starting receiver slots. Cyr has run a 4.6-second, 40-yard dash, Beck said.

Cavin Gillispie and Tommy Winningham, who return as starting linebackers on defense, will contend for the starting running back position.

Fighting for playing time on the offensive line will be guards Marcus Carter and Daniel Butler and tackles Roman Lacy and Bryce Auguston. Juniors Jesse Merritt and Cody Young are locked in a spirited battle at tight end.

Joining Gillispie and Winningham as returning defensive starters are end Johnny Gonzalez and 6-1, 300-pound Ryan Davis, who has hoisted 285 pounds on the squat rack and run the 40 in 5.0 seconds, Beck said.

A pair of sophomores — 6-2 1/2, 245-pound offensive tackle/defensive end Nokoa Kahaulielo and defensive end John Ale — will be counted on heavily.

“Ale is very physical and violent — he’s playing well beyond his age,” Beck said.

If a game or two is decided on special teams, Crater could hold an advantage. Morgan was the an honorable mention, all-conference punter in Southwest Conference play last season while junior placekicker Jason Santoni shined at the Oregon Ducks’ kicking camp this summer and routinely has been banging through 50-yard field goals in practice, Beck said.

With a difficult preseason schedule and an even tougher league slate, the Comets will need every edge they can find.