Crater coach Chris Schmerbach was open for suggestions Thursday when he emailed his former high school coach at Klamath Union, Barry Gottula.
Calls and emails have been a weekly tradition for the two since Schmerbach became a coach himself, but this time Schmerbach’s conundrum was more specific than usual: namely, how to deal with Thurston, Crater’s opponent in Saturday’s Class 5A fourth-place game. Thurston had won three straight over Crater heading into the game, including a crushing loss in last year’s state semifinals.
The result of that email was a new defense, aptly dubbed The Pelican, which Schmerbach promptly installed Friday and the Comets executed successfully Saturday, holding their Midwestern League rivals to their lowest point total in nearly a month en route to a 60-54 victory at Oregon State’s Gill Coliseum in Corvallis.
The win over Thurston tied for Crater (20-7) the highest finish in program history — fourth place in 1990 — and capped the team’s impressive bounce-back from Wednesday’s quarterfinal loss to Silverton. After losing their first tournament game, the sixth-seeded Comets responded by trouncing 10th-seeded Pendleton 78-62 Thursday and surprising fifth-seeded Thurston.
“So, we finished fourth in league and fourth in the state and were probably picked fifth (in the state) to start the season, and to finish there or ahead of that (prediction) is pretty cool,” Schmerbach said. “We talked a lot this season about not worrying about where we are in league or where we are in the state and just trying to finish our best at the end. And we had a lot of kids that played their best this weekend and did things they haven’t done this year.”
In sophomore wing Nate Bittle’s case, he did some things that nobody’s ever done at the state tournament, setting an all-time all-classification record that stood for a quarter-century by blocking 21 shots in a dominant three-game run.
Bittle, who had 28 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks Saturday, also totaled 33 field goals and 43 rebounds, setting the 5A tournament field goal mark and tying former teammate Kiefer Edwards for the record in rebounds.
He averaged 28.3 points, 14.3 rebounds and seven blocks a game in Corvallis, and was there when the Comets needed him most, draining a key step-back 3 to keep Thurston at bay in the fourth quarter.
“(Bittle) shines when the big lights are on and he took over this weekend,” Schmerbach said.
Employing a defense that focused pressure on Thurston’s three guards and required two post players to control the paint, the Comets held Thurston to 38-percent shooting (20-for-53) and limited the Colts’ most dynamic players, guards Isaac Lange and Mason Miller, to 28 points on 11-for-29 shooting, including 1-for-6 from 3-point range.
“We gave up some looks early but we kind of stuck with it,” Schmerbach said. “It was just enough to keep Thurston out of what they do. They’re so well-coached.”
The Comets charged ahead in the second quarter and controlled most of the rest of the game, using an 11-2 run to take a 21-11 lead midway through the second quarter. Bittle scored eight in that stretch, including two 3s.
Crater’s lead fluctuated between three and eight points throughout the third, but the Colts (20-7) rallied. They used an 8-0 run to take their first lead of the game on a pair of free throws by Trey Bryant with 6 minutes, 23 seconds left in the game and were down just one, 48-47, after Lange hit a pair of free throws at the 5:02 mark.
But Crater didn’t panic, scoring on a layup by Nathan Horton off a nice feed by Bittle and extending its lead to six on Bittle’s fall-away 3 with 3:09 to go.
The Colts crawled back to within three points twice more, but the Comets iced the game at the free throw line, with Jayden Vranes hitting a pair with 17 seconds left and Bittle adding another.
Vranes had 13 points, seven assists and three steals, Horton eight points, three assists and two steals and Kruger Edwards four points, four rebounds and two steals for the Comets, who shot 42 percent from the floor (20-for-48) and hit 15 of 20 free throws.
Schmerbach said he was proud of the way his team stuck together after some tough times early in the season, and praised Bittle’s supporting cast for stepping up on the big stage.
“(Vranes) was excellent in the two wins,” Schmerbach said, “and he played point guard as good as it’s been played here. We told him we want to show everyone that you’re one of the best point guards in the state and there’s not a doubt that he didn’t do that. He did all the little things that a point guard needs to do.”
The game was the last in a Crater uniform for four Comet seniors: Horton, Nathan Johnson, Taishi Noble and Garrett Dance. That leaves 10 varsity players slated to come back and make another run to Corvallis next season, a quest Schmerbach said can only be aided by what the Comets pulled off over the last few days.
“I think it’s awesome to be able to learn and grow and see where you need to be and do it while winning,” he said, “because even though we finished great, we also kind of all learned individually and as a team what we need to do to be an elite team. So it’s out there for us. Now we just have to work hard for it and follow the process together and there’s no doubt we should be back in the mix next year.”
Nate Bittle 10-22 5-8 28, Jayden Vranes 3-6 6-6 13, Nathan Horton 3-9 1-2 8, Kruger Edwards 2-4 0-0 4, Hunter Chubb 1-4 2-2 4, Blake Eaton 1-3 1-2 3, Nathan Johnson 0-0 0-0 0, Taishi Noble 0-0 0-0 0, Garrett Dance 0-0 0-0 0, Jaden Fliegel 0-0 0-0 0, Trevor Jaasko 0-0 0-0 0, Braydon Ray 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-48 15-20 60.
Isaac Lange 5-13 5-5 16, Mason Miller 6-16 0-0 12, Cade Crist 4-9 2-2 12, Trey Bryant 2-7 4-4 8, Dejean Alonzo 1-3 0-0 2, Dawson Muggy 1-1 0-0 2, Santino Stranieri 1-2 0-2 2, Jacob White 0-1 0-0 0, Jaxon Beagle 0-0 0-0 0, Kyle Casley 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-53 11-13 54.
3-point goals—Crater 5-22 (Nate Bittle 3-10, Nathan Horton 1-5, Jayden Vranes 1-3, Blake Eaton 0-1, Hunter Chubb 0-1, Kruger Edwards 0-2), Thurston 3-16 (Cade Crist 2-7, Isaac Lange 1-5, Santino Stranieri 0-1, Jacob White 0-1, Kyle Casley 0-1, Mason Miller 0-1). Fouled out—Crater-None, Thurston-Dawson Muggy. Rebounds—Crater 31 (Nate Bittle 14), Thurston 31 (Mason Miller 7). Assists—Crater 14 (Jayden Vranes 7), Thurston 10 (Isaac Lange 4). Total fouls—Crater 14, Thurston 22. Technical fouls—Crater-None, Thurston-None.
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or email@example.com.