CENTRAL POINT — It goes against everything Chris Schmerbach and his staff in the Crater boys basketball program have preached all season but, come on, it’s the final two weeks of the regular season and hard not to look ahead just a little bit.
Beginning Tuesday night at 7 when the Comets play host to defending Midwestern League champion Churchill, four games — and four wins — remain between Crater and a historic campaign. Three of those games, thankfully, will be played at Crater High.
“In the last few weeks we’ve just been trying to get everyone, including myself and all of the coaches, not to look too far ahead,” said Schmerbach on Monday. “We’ve been trying to stay focused on the game that’s in front of us and treat that as a championship game and try not to do the math or figure out who’s where until we get closer to the end.”
It’s a fine mantra, but one that becomes harder to follow as the season winds down. Twenty-eight years is a long time to wait between conference championships, and it can all come to an end Feb. 23 should the Comets simply keep doing what they’ve been doing.
“It’s something we’ve talked about and discussed that this is a big opportunity,” admitted the third-year Crater coach, “but in order to make it a reality you have to seize each moment and be in the moment.”
The Comets have done a fine job of that since a MWL-opening loss at Springfield, but this is an unforgiving league in which they compete and there are no guarantees despite owning a 19-1 overall record. Crater stands atop the MWL at 9-1 entering Tuesday’s clash with the Lancers, but just one game ahead of Springfield, two ahead of Churchill and three ahead of Thurston.
To put the task at hand in perspective, it’s worth noting that Churchill (15-5, 7-3 MWL) is No. 8 in the Class 5A state power rankings. The final stretch also includes a home date Friday against No. 12 Marist (10-10, 4-6), road trip next Tuesday at Ashland (5-15, 1-9) — which played No. 2 Crater as tough as anyone in an earlier 58-52 loss — and a home finale Feb. 23 against No. 3 Thurston (14-5, 6-4) in a highly-anticipated rematch from the Comets’ 45-43 win on Jan. 25.
“Not only is our league one of the toughest in the state,” said Schmerbach, “but if you look at it, the title race is probably one of the tightest also. There’s just so many things that can happen even though there’s only four games left. I’ve been in enough of these battles both in the Cascade Collegiate Conference (with SOU) and Sky-Em Conference (with Marist) where I’ve seen it all change on the last game and someone you didn’t expect wins it all.”
Given Crater’s recent history, just being in this spot is a welcomed change.
The Comets have already secured their first winning season in three years but, along with a first conference title since the 1989-90 season, they are looking to reach the state playoffs for the first time in five years. It’s been nine years since Crater won a state playoff game, finishing sixth at the 5A level in 2009.
“Everybody’s really excited and looking forward to the next couple weeks and I think that’s the approach you have to take,” said Schmerbach. “We have this opportunity and these games are going to be fun, so let’s go and let’s test ourselves.”
That’s been the one staple of this season, Crater’s ability to respond to each challenge in a league where every night seems to offer a worthy opponent. With No. 4 Springfield, the MWL boasts four of the top eight programs at the 5A level and has had as many as five in the top-10 this season.
“It’s just going to be interesting, whoever wins this thing is going to be able to look back and say, man, that’s cool we were able to do that,” said Schmerbach. “Not only because of the level of talent but also the coaches in our league because they really know what they’re doing and challenge you to be your best. That’s what you want as a player is to be pushed to your limit, and this league does that.”
The “iron sharpens iron” theory also comes to mind when considering how Schmerbach expects the MWL boys basketball slate to help each team in the postseason, where only the top two teams from the league earn automatic bids to the 16-team state playoffs but MWL team Nos. 3-6 also have a chance with play-in opportunities.
“The one thing playing in this league does,” said Schmerbach, “is if you’re able to compete at that high of a level and have some success it prepares you for the future if you get to the playoffs or you get to the state tournament. Once there, you’ll look around and say, well, we’ve played and competed with these teams and have just as much as chance to be successful as anyone. What it does is it gives you confidence in those moments.”
Confidence also comes with talent, and the Comets certainly have that in their back pocket. Senior 6-foot-6 wing Kiefer Edwards leads the squad with 21.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game but has enjoyed plenty of help from 6-2 senior guard Mason Vranes (14.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.3 apg) and 6-9 freshman Nathan Bittle (8.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.6 apg), who is also averaging 3.5 blocks per game.
Sophomore 5-11 point guard Jayden Vranes has also been instrumental at 8.5 points, 5.4 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game, along with pivotal work from 6-1 senior wing Cade Weaver (6.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.3 apg) and reserves Christophe Stollings (6-6 senior) and Nate Horton (6-0 junior).
“The cool thing about it is obviously Kiefer and Mason have been pretty consistent,” said Schmerbach, “but now Nate Bittle is starting to have that same consistent play and other people are starting to do things on nights that have really helped us get over the hump in some games. Cade has been huge for us in a handful of games and Christophe Stollings has played the best he ever has here coming down the stretch, and Nate Horton is finding his groove, too.”
All of that, and more, will be needed in order for Crater to achieve its goals in the near future.
“To be able to go on a run,” added Schmerbach, “everybody’s got to be able to step up and realize that they can make one play that can win a game for us and change a game for us and they have to be ready for that opportunity.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry