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Crater gets another shot at state

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CENTRAL POINT — Given the track record of the Crater boys basketball program, a fifth-place finish at last year’s Class 5A state tournament should have left a good feeling.

And yet, it didn’t.

Sure, it was Crater’s first final-site appearance since 2009 and only the fifth overall, but the Comets had loftier expectations. They had earned their first conference title in 28 years and were saddled with only one loss entering the 2018 state tourney, so even making it to their first-ever semifinal appearance wasn’t as satisfying as it should have been.

Things only took a dip from there, with Thurston avenging two earlier losses to Crater in the semifinals and then Churchill doing likewise in a third-place final that saw the Comets lose a 10-point lead with only five minutes to play.

Placing third would have been the best finish in program history — Crater placed fourth in 1990 — but that was not meant to be for an otherwise spectacular season.

So when Crater secured a repeat trip to the state tournament last Friday with a resounding 67-42 win over Putnam, the Comets appreciated another opportunity.

Sixth-seeded Crater (17-8) will face No. 3 Silverton (23-2) at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the state quarterfinals at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis.

“Especially for the coaches and players who were there last year, we kind of feel like there’s a bit of unfinished business that we’d like to take care of, for sure,” said fourth-year Crater head coach Chris Schmerbach. “But this year’s group is a totally different team, and we play a totally different style and it’s just a different feel this year. Last year there was a different kind of pressure at the end that we felt, only having one loss going into it and just kind of limping into the state tournament, so to speak, kind of trying to hold on.”

In reality, this year’s group may be a year ahead of projections for even getting this far given its youth — there are five sophomores in the regular rotation. Those on the inside, however, have felt all along it was their destiny to get back to Gill Coliseum.

“The expectation hasn’t changed from last year and that’s what you want in your team,” said Schmerbach.

When it comes to the upcoming state tournament, which runs Wednesday-Saturday, the goal for Crater isn’t a certain trophy, it’s for the Comets to put their best foot forward to fully take advantage of their opportunity.

“I feel really good about where we are,” said Schmerbach. “Our guys are hungry, they’ve stayed together and they’re battle-tested.”

For the second straight year, Crater is one of four Midwestern League teams to advance to the final site. Top-seeded Churchill, No. 4 Willamette and No. 5 Thurston also advanced, giving the Comets hope in an iron-sharpens-iron approach to the stretch run.

“Without a doubt it helps,” said Schmerbach of the MWL battleground. “When you look at four teams at the final site and battling those teams on weekly basis, getting that playoff atmosphere and challenge throughout the season is a benefit. When you get there (to Corvallis), nothing you see will be a shock.”

If there’s one thing the Comets learned last year, though, it’s that nothing comes easy at the state tournament.

“The next step for us is we’ve got to keep playing defense like the way we’ve been lately,” said 6-foot-10 sophomore Nate Bittle, “and we’ve got to push the ball up the floor and get our open shots and not take contested shots. We’ve just got to keep playing hard.”

Bittle has been the anchor to Crater’s success this season, especially when the team lost returning junior point guard Jayden Vranes for a month to injury following the second game of the season. Pegged as the 15th-best recruit in the nation for the Class of 2021, Bittle is averaging 20.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.6 blocks, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game.

“Nate’s lived up to the hype and that is quite an accomplishment with the amount of hype that he’s had,” said Schmerbach. “It’s something like I’ve never seen to be able to put up numbers like he’s done and step up in games and be our centerpiece with all that stuff surrounding it.”

To reach the final site, Bittle flirted with a quadruple-double by posting 26 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and seven blocked shots against Putnam.

Vranes is averaging 8.2 points, 3.1 assists and leads the team in steals, while senior Nathan Horton (9.0 points, 2.8 rebounds) and junior Kruger Edwards (6.8 points, 4.5 rebounds) are key contributors.

The Comets have also gotten a nice boost from sophomore Hunter Chubb, who stepped in for Vranes at point guard during his absence and his remained in the starting lineup thanks to his steady play. Chubb is averaging 6.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists.

“Hunter has improved more than probably anyone in the program over the course of the year,” said Schmerbach.

While Wilsonville and Churchill expect to be the 5A title favorites, Silverton isn’t far off in its own right. Silverton was the No. 1 seed last year but finished fourth after being upset by Churchill.

The Mid-Willamette Conference champion Foxes boast the third-leading offense at the 5A level at 72 points per game and allow around 50 points per game under head coach Jamie McCarty. All five starters average double-digit scoring.

“I’ve known Jamie going back to his days at Stayton, he always does a really good job,” said Schmerbach. “They don’t have a lot of weaknesses. They’re solid on both ends of the floor, and they’re also experienced.”

Junior point guard David Gonzales is a two-time first-team all-conference player who knocked down six 3-pointers and scored 35 points in Silverton’s only loss to an Oregon team this season, 87-81 at Corvallis.

Senior guard Jonah Downey is adept at getting to the basket and is complemented by 6-5 sharpshooter Grant Dunn and the interior play of 6-4 standouts Levi Nielsen and Josiah Roth.

“We just need to continue to focus on the moment and the present,” said Schmerbach, “and not worry about what’s happening the next game or end of the tournament or even what happened in the past. If we’re really focusing on the moment and bringing our best, once we get to the games we don’t have to do anything special. We’re not going to need to be heroes, just play together and do the things we’ve done well throughout the season and put it all together one last weekend.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneCrater’s Nate Bittle drives to the hoop in the 2nd quarter.
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