NASELLE - One has to go back almost 40 years to find a Naselle High School football team which exceeded the results of the football season just completed by the 2007 Naselle Comets. This year's edition of the Comets put together an impressive 9-2 season record, were co-champions of the Pacific League and went deep into the state 2B playoffs as one of the state's "elite eight" in the 2B quarterfinals before their season came to an end.
Not since the two seasons of 1968 and 1969 has a Naselle football team earned higher season awards. The 1968 season saw the talented Comets sweep through their opponents with only two close games during the season. In those pre-playoff years, the state football championships were determined by a state-wide poll of newspaper sports editors. The 1969 Comets swept through the season with only one loss, to class A Raymond. Raymond was awarded the state's class A championship while the Naselle Comets repeated as the state's class B football champions.
Over the intervening years, the Comets football fortunes have ebbed and flowed, with few entries into the state playoff picture. There were exceptions, to be sure. as the Comets made it into the playoffs, which were established in 1973 to replace the poll-elected champions of earlier years. The Comets advanced into the playoffs in five different years, prior to this season, with their earliest entry in 1975. They also made it into the state qualifying round during one additional year. The highest finish for the Comets in the playoffs came when they lost in a quarterfinal round game in 1986, a record which they matched this year.
In getting to the point where the Comets finished the season as a state quarterfinalist, they had to overcome some fairly significant problems and deal with some issues before they could finish with their 9-2 record, tie for the Pacific League title, and advance in the state 2B playoffs. The Comets began the season with a relatively new coaching staff. Jeff Eaton moved up from assistant coach to take over the head coach's position. Eventually, Clyde Glick and Paul Wirkkala were hired as assistants for the high school team and Lonnie Eaton and Chris Hinkle were signed to continue coaching the middle school team.
Naselle opened the season with a man-power shortage. Due to injuries and ineligibility, the Comets opened the season with only 17 players available for the first two games. Before the first game was even half over, the Comets lost their senior quarterback and defensive back Kyle Burkhalter to a separated shoulder, an injury that was to cause problems, off and on, for the rest of the season. Some of the underclassmen, such as Austin Burkhalter, Logan Scrabeck, Alan Erickson, and Tyler Smith joined such veterans as Mike Shirley, Jason Gradt and Kevin Maki in helping the Comets to hold on for an eight point, 22-14 win over Vancouver Christian, in their opening game.
The Comets again utilized their younger players in their second game and those players, Erickson, Austin Burkhalter, Nathan Carlson and Scrabeck provided the offense to allow the Comets to roll to a 20-point win, 32-12 over Evergreen Lutheran, and a 2-0 record in non-league games. With a bye week giving the Comets' walking wounded a chance to heal before entering their league schedule, the Comets were hoping to have more players available for their league games.
Playing their first league game at Raymond, the Comets jumped to an early lead and built on that lead for a 28-13 win. The Comets got Kyle Burkhalter back from his injury and he made significant contributions on both offense and defense as did Tony Fletcher who saw his first action of the season.
The Comets only loss of the regular season came the following week when they fell 7-0 to state-ranked Willapa Valley. The defensive battle was decided by a fourth down pass which was just barely complete for the only TD of the game. The Naselle defense was led by Erickson, Gradt, Shirley, Fletcher, Nick Hines and Austin Burkhalter. The Naselle offense had to play the second half without the services of Kyle Burkhalter who again dislocated his shoulder.
The close loss, if it did anything, served as a stimulus to the Comets for the remainder of their league games. Naselle then went on a scoring binge, beating Northwest Christian 46-8, Tacoma Baptist 38-16 and North Beach 34-8. The three wins, all earned with contributions from a varied group of players, put the Comets into position to work their way into a tie for the lead in the league title chase. Naselle was finally getting all of its players suited up for a game, giving them as many as 28 players in contrast to the 17 which they had at the start of the season.
The Comets earned a tie for the league lead with a 25-13 win over South Bend, their first win over the South Bend in several seasons.
Naselle came from behind to win this game with three touchdown passes from Kyle Burkhalter, two to Gabe See and one to Erickson, and a long return of a recovered fumble by Fletcher.
With the South Bend win, the Comets could assure themselves of a tie for the league title with a win over Ocosta. They got that win by a 39-15 score after first falling behind by seven points as Kyle Burkhalter passed for three touchdowns. Especially noteworthy was the fact that he did this after re-setting his own shoulder after it had dislocated in the early minutes of the game. With that win, the Comets finished in a three-way tie for the league title, along with South Bend and Valley.
A coin flip gave the Comets the league's second place seeding into the state playoffs where the Comets beat Seattle Lutheran 42-7 to win their first playoff game. Kyle Burkhalter led the Naselle attack with four rushing touchdowns while the Naselle defense controlled the Saints normally high-scoring offense. The win put the Comets into the state quarterfinals.
That quarterfinal game was against Life Christian, a team which had played in the state 2B semi-finals in 2006 after dropping down from Class 1A a year earlier. The Eagles controlled the game with a 22-0 win, thus ending the Comets' season with a 9-2 record.
The Comets ended their season with three runners, Kyle Burkhalter, Fletcher and Nick Hines each averaging over six yards per carry and Erickson more than four yards per run. Erickson scored nine rushing touchdowns, Burkhalter and Fletcher each scored eight rushing touchdowns and Nick Hines added four rushing scores. Fletcher also added four receiving touchdowns and two defensive TDs. In the passing department, Kyle Burkhalter completed 53 of 113 passes for 770 yards and nine scores. Austin Burkhalter was 18 of 41 for 127 yards and two TDs. Named to the offensive all league or honorable mention teams were Fletcher, Shirley, Gradt, both Burkhalters, Erickson and Maki. Defensively, the Comets were led by Shirley, Gradt, Erickson, Maki, both Burkhalters and Fletcher who each were named to the first team or honorable mention all-league defensive teams.
As with all teams, there is bad news and good news about this Comets team. The bad news is that they will lose four of their leaders to graduation. Graduating seniors are Kyle Burkhalter, Cody Gilbert, Jason Gradt, and Kevin Maki. The good news is that the large majority of this year's Comets team will return with another year of valuable experience under their belts.
As coach Jeff Eaton said, "These kids stuck together. They enjoyed each other and did things together. We can hope that the 22 or so who return next year will continue to do the same."
Much like the Comets teams which set the standard way back in 1968 and 1969.