Crater boys preach patience for 5A tourney
The first year was about making history, the second was to be a redemption tour.
This week’s third straight trip to the Class 5A state championships for the Crater boys basketball team?
According to fifth-year Comets head coach Chris Schmerbach, it’s all about his team simply being who they are and letting the chips fall where they may.
“We talk a lot about roles and what players are good at, and all of them have value and bring something to this team,” said Schmerbach. “Our message this week is do what you do best and stick to that, really focus on your strengths and do the things that have gotten individual players to this point and the team to this point and we will be happy with whatever outcome happens.”
Crater reached the championship semifinals two years ago for the first time in school history, only to exit the tourney with a fifth-place trophy that didn’t exactly leave the Comets satisfied.
Last year, the Comets struggled in their opening quarterfinal but rebounded to finish in fourth place.
This year’s quarterfinal opponent is sixth-seeded South Albany (20-5), and the third-seeded Comets (19-6) aren’t interested in taking anything to chance for the 6:30 p.m. Wednesday contest at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis.
“You can’t put so much pressure on any of the games,” said Schmerbach, whose team is ranked No. 2 in the 5A coaches poll, “you try to take each step as they come and live in each moment the best we can. We’re going to focus really hard on the first one (Wednesday), though, because you can’t get to the second one until you take care of the first one.”
To Crater’s benefit, playing in a third straight state tournament — with so many eyes squarely affixed on you thanks to the presence of 6-foot-11 standout Nate Bittle — should be no big deal these days.
Seniors Jayden Vranes and Kruger Edwards have been staples alongside Bittle at the tourney, with a host of this year’s key figures like juniors Hunter Chubb, Braydon Ray and Blake Eaton also getting their feet wet in the event one year ago.
“A lot of our guys that are playing big minutes and are big pieces of the puzzle have been there and been in that environment for three years now,” said Schmerbach, “so there’s nothing that’s going to be unfamiliar.”
The closest thing to that will be South Albany itself, since neither team has seen one another since Crater won twice over the RedHawks in the 2017-18 season. The Comets won 78-55 on Dec. 7, 2017, and then opened the state tourney with a 65-54 win on March 7, 2018.
South Albany has a new head coach this year in Tim Matuszak and a deep, senior-filled roster that finished third in the Mid-Willamette Conference behind tournament qualifiers Silverton (No. 2 seed) and West Albany (No. 5 seed).
The Midwestern League, in which Crater finished as runner-up, also qualified three teams for the state championships with top-seeded Churchill and No. 7 Willamette.
“South Albany has had a really good year,” said Schmerbach. “They’re team is pretty deep and they have pieces at every position that can cause problems. They have our full attention. We’re excited to play against them and see how we match up.”
Isaiah Gilliam, a 6-foot-2 junior, has been a spark for South Albany with his ability to distribute the ball but also score when called upon, netting 32 points earlier this year against Sweet Home.
Providing solid complements to Gilliam have been 6-foot senior shooting guard Kenyon McGlothan, a left-hander who can also get to the basket, and 6-4 senior forward Ayden Foster, who boasts a steady mid-range and inside game.
For Crater, it’s hard not to start with Bittle, who ranks No. 10 on the ESPN 60 for the Class of 2021 national recruits. The versatile junior put the state on notice a year ago when he led the 5A tourney in points (85 points, 28.3 average), rebounds (43, 14.3 average) and blocks (21, 7.0 average).
Bittle was the only unanimous first-team all-tournament selection last year, and his 40 points against Pendleton was just three points shy of equaling the 5A tourney record. He shot 33-for-65 from the field (50.8 percent) and was 9-for-27 from beyond the arc (33.3 percent) to set the tone for Crater.
Bittle’s 10 blocked shots against Pendleton established an all-classification single-game record, and his 21 overall also set an all-time tournament record. As a team, the Comets’ 27 blocked shots established an all-classification record.
“Nate finished the way most great players need to finish their seasons, and that’s by playing their best,” said Schmerbach. “That’s his goal this year and that’s our goal this year, to go there and kind of put the best version of ourselves out there and let the chips fall where they may in regards to how far we can go.”
This year, Bittle is averaging 25.2 points, 11.1 rebounds, 4.2 blocks, 2.4 assists and 1.2 steals for the Comets, who are far from a one-man team.
Vranes chips in with steady leadership from the point guard position and is averaging 6.7 points, 5.4 assists, 2.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals. His intensity on both ends of the floor continue to be crucial for Crater.
“I feel like right now he’s playing the point guard position as good as he ever has,” said Schmerbach. “We’re just really excited for him because we know he’s going to finish these last three days the way he wants to and put his legacy as one of the best, if not the best, point guard to come out of this school.”
Edwards saw his “switch flipped” this year, according to Schmerbach, and has developed into a perfect complement for Bittle with his ability to attack the basket and also knock down shots beyond the arc. The 6-foot-6 senior is Crater’s second-leading scorer at 12.5 points per game to go with 5.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists.
“It’s been crazy good for us what Kruger has done,” said Bittle. “He’s got his shot down and is just attacking off the dribble and playing good defense. Every day in practice with him guarding me it just makes him that much better of a defender, and also with me guarding him makes me a better defensive player, so it’s great for both of us.”
With Chubb, a 6-1 junior breakout star, adding 9.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists, Ray coming in at 2.2 steals per game and the Comets able to rotate in a host of players off the bench, Crater is optimistic about its chances this week.
“I’m hoping this team can get to the state final,” Bittle said after Saturday’s playoff rout of La Salle Prep. “I think we have the people to do it and the talent, and definitely the defense to do it. We just have to put it all together on the big stage.”