From left, Crater’s leading scorer Jake Randol and teammates Bryce Crawford, Tate Stevens, Aaron Asbeck and Forrest Mendoca have helped the Comets re-emerge as one of the top hockey teams in the Southern Oregon League this season. - Jamie Lusch

Bruise Brothers

With one thunderous check against the boards, Tate Stevens announced the revival of Crater High ice hockey.

Combining the speed of a gazelle and the brute force of an anvil, the Comets have used a mixture of scoring talent and physical play to put last season's one-win disappointment behind them and emerge as legitimate contenders again in the Southern Oregon League.

Easily the most improved team in the league, Crater is currently in fourth place with a 6-5-2 record and 20 points, just two points behind third-place South Medford heading into this weekend's games against Klamath Falls (tonight) and Ashland (Saturday) at The RRRink in Medford.

After an 0-3 start to the season, Crater has gone 6-2-2 in its last 10 games, taking league leaders Ashland and Churchill to overtime along the way. The deepest team in the six-team league, the Comets boast six of the league's top 20 scorers and are tied with Ashland for the most goals in the league with 75. Crater has scored six goals or more in eight of its 13 games this season.

"I've got more of the best individual talents than any team in the league," says coach Richard Renfro, in his second season behind the Comets' bench after serving as a South Medford assistant for two years.

The team has eight new faces on its 16-person roster, which includes students from Grants Pass, Cascade Christian, St. Mary's and Rogue River. Leading the way is Jake Randol, a junior center who moved to Central Point from Vancouver, Wash., last February and is second to Ashland's Casey Skolnik in goals (30) and points (36).

"My game is more speed and finesse," says the 5-foot-9, 165-pound Randol, who centers a line that often includes sophomores Bryce Crawford and Cody Martin.

Crawford (17 goals, 12 assists), Martin (11, 11), freshman defenseman Daniel Gomez (8, 4) and seniors Aaron Ashbeck (3, 8) and Stevens (5, 4) have also been key contributors. The Comets' offensive style is to send multiple players to the front of the net, jamming away at rebounds and creating havoc for opposing goaltenders.

"That's what we've been working on, crashing the net and screening the goalie," Randol says.

The physical style isn't limited to the goal crease, however. Checking was introduced into the high school game last season, and no team seems to relish the big hits more than the Comets.

The team leads the league in penalty minutes with 210. (Churchill is a distant second with 179.) Randol has been suspended twice this season, once for a hard check that broke an opponents' nose and once for a fight with North Medford defenseman Taylor Covey. Crawford also was suspended after drawing five minor penalties in a single game.

"We have some really hard hitters, like Tate, Bryce and I, who know how to hit," says Randol. "I wouldn't consider us a bruiser team, but that's the reputation we've gotten so far."

Randol, whose 68 penalty minutes are far and away the most in the league, received a checking from behind minor penalty and a 10-minute misconduct in the Comets' win at Klamath Falls last week.

"He has kind of the bad-boy reputation in the league, but he does not play dirty hockey," Renfro says.

In fact, it's Stevens, a 6-1, 190-pound defensive end on the Comets' football team, that perhaps best personifies the team's aggressive approach.

"I feel like I definitely bring a force to the ice," says Stevens, the team captain who is second on the team in penalty minutes (36). "Jake plays more of a stick game; he's really good with his stick and is a fast skater. I play more of a hard hitting body game."

The team is starting to understand the fine line between controlled aggression and dirty play.

"I think we started off more aggressive in the first couple of games than I wanted to be," Renfro says. "I noticed some of my players were more focused on checking other players than playing the puck. There's a time and a place to check, but you don't sacrifice the play for the check."

"The aggressiveness was really out there, and I think we've toned it down a lot. I don't think we check any more than some of the opposing teams do."

If there was a turning point in the Comets' season, it might have been a Dec. 17 victory over South Medford. The team was 0-3-1 at the time and trailed 5-1 after two periods before scoring seven times in the third to post an 8-6 victory.

"We started making a connection in the locker room and started finding each other," Crawford says. "It takes a little while out there on the ice to get used to each other. We finally found it after our fourth game."

There hasn't been much hesitation since. Not even an illness to starting goalie Lucas Paulsen has slowed the Comets. Crawford, a catcher on the school's baseball team who has alternated between forward and defense for most of the season, borrowed equipment from South Medford's Brandon Andrews and recorded a 5-0 shutout against North Medford on Feb. 7.

Not one to surrender his job without a fight, Paulsen returned four days later and made 15 saves in a shutout of his own against Klamath Falls. Paulsen's .808 save percentage and 5.91 goals against average still rank last in the league, meaning the Comets need their scorers to find the back of the net often if they are to be successful.

If the Comets can continue to get an improved level of play from their defense and goalies, they can set their sights on winning a second SOL title in three seasons when the league playoffs open on Feb. 27. Defending champion Ashland and first-place Churchill are the early favorites.

"I don't have any doubt in my mind that we can beat them," Renfro says. "They have some good players, but we have good players, too."

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