NASELLE - So close. But not quite. Those two statements summarize the Naselle Comets tough loss to the state ranked Willapa Valley Vikings Friday night, Sept. 28, on Naselle's Rueben Penttila Field. The Comets came closer to beating the Vikings than they have at any time during the past several years. The last time the Comets beat the Vikings was in 1999 in Menlo, when Matt Allen ran in the winning TD in an overtime period.
Last Friday night, NHS held the powerful Vikings' attack to only one touchdown but that score was just enough to beat the Comets 7-0 in the Pacific 2B League football match-up between the two league-leading teams. The Comets' record dropped to 3-1, 1-1 in league, while the Vikings climbed to 4-1, 2-0 in league.
"We played the best defense that we have played all year," said coach Jeff Eaton of this year's game. "The kids played like we wanted them to play. The only score that Valley made was on a fourth down with six yards to go pass which just barely went over the fingertips of our defender. Everything was right on that play. We had good pressure, but our guy just kind of pulled up. The pass was just over Austin Burkhalter's fingertips in the back of the end zone.
"It was a knock-down drag-out defensive game all night long. Coach (Clyde) Glick has the guys really playing well on defense," Eaton summarized. Alan Erickson, with 16 tackles and Jason Gradt with 12 stops, anchored the Comets "D." Cody Gilbert forced a fumble that was recovered by Mike Shirley, and Nick Hines also recovered a fumble. Tony Fletcher was credited with a Vikings loss on a defensive stop. Austin Burkhalter had an interception in the defensive battle-royal.
The Comets were again forced to play the last two-plus quarters without the services of senior leader Kyle Burkhalter who suffered a repeat of the shoulder separation which has knocked him out of action once already this season and during two other seasons earlier in his Naselle football career. The injury to Kyle forced the Comets to adjust on offense, with Kyle's brother Austin taking over at quarterback, and also having to adjust their defensive secondary.
Kyle later wrote on the Chinook Observer Friday Night Sights football blog, "My shoulder dislocated again towards the end of the second quarter. My dad was able to get it back into place and my football career remains in question at this time." While disappointed, Kyle expressed optimism by stating, "After the game the coaches said that this definitely wasn't the end of our season and we could still reach our goal of making the playoffs. We all believe we have what it takes to make it to the playoffs and more."
Running back-linebacker Alan Erickson echoed the same thoughts in the same blog, saying, "Even though we lost, it is definitely not the end of our season. Next week we take on Northwest Christian and are ready to make our stand. We, as a team, believe we can still make it to the playoffs and we're ready to do whatever it takes to get there. On Friday night we lost to the number seven team by a single play and that is the best Naselle has done in many years. We are ready for every other battle there is to come."
NHS was within scoring range several times against the Vikings defense. Fletcher (14 carries for 51 yards) and Erickson (11-for-40) did most of the damage carrying the ball. With first Kyle (3-of-9 for 36 yards) and then Austin (2-of-5 for 35) providing the passing, the Comets penetrated within the Vikings 15-yard line four different times, but each time the Vikings' defense turned the Comets away.
One of the Comets' deeper scoring threats came in the third period, when facing a fourth and long, the Comets attempted a field goal. The snap was botched and that attempt was stopped. Naselle's last chance to tie or win was a halfback pass, with under two minutes left in the game, which fell incomplete in the end zone.
"One of our threats to score came after Austin intercepted a pass and returned it 28-yards to get us into scoring position. We had another scoring chance when assistant coach (Paul) Wirkkala called for a modified 'hook and ladder' play. His (Wirkkala's) work with the offense has our offense playing well," said Eaton.
The Comets travel to Rainier High School this Friday night to play the Northwest Christian Crusaders in a Pacific League game. The Crusaders stuck it to North Beach 30-0 a week ago in the Crusader's first-ever football win in just its second year of varsity football. To get to Rainier, take exit 88 off I-5, 7 miles north of Centralia, and travel east on highway 507 through Bucoda and Tenino.