Down in the dumps following a miserable first half, the Ashland Grizzlies — not the high school Grizzlies, the Pee Wee Grizzlies — looked to their coach for advice on what to do against their suddenly steamrolling arch nemesis, the Medford Raiders.
The Grizzlies were down 12-0, with two quarters to play in the 2007 Rogue Valley Pop Warner championship game when head coach Greg White decided to pass on an X's and O's breakdown and instead throw out a bold prediction.
"This is what's going to happen," he said. "We're going to drive down the field and score a touchdown, then we're going to drive down and score another touchdown, then we're going to score the extra-point and win the game, 13-12."
White still beams with pride when describing the game five years later. Yes, the Grizzlies did drive down the field and score. Yes, they scored again. Yes, Jon Volz, now a senior tailback for the Ashland High Grizzlies, ran in the extra-point to cap the dramatic comeback at Medford's Spiegelberg Stadium.
"From that point on, the kids believed what their coaches told them," White said with a laugh.
Two weeks after stunning Medford, White's team trounced Willamette 30-0 at Autzen Stadium in Eugene to capture the state title — the second in a row for many of the players on Ashland's roster who also played on White's undefeated Junior Pee Wee team the year before.
While many of the players on those back-to-back state championship teams have either dropped the sport or moved away, eight will suit up for the Ashland High Grizzlies on Friday night, when Ashland hosts Churchill in a crucial Midwestern League showdown at Phillips Field: senior defensive back/receiver RJ Atteberry; junior kicker/receiver Matt Hedges; senior receiver/cornerback Quaid Walters; junior quarterback/cornerback Danial White; senior running back/linebacker Volz; junior receiver/defensive back Carter Glick; junior two-way lineman Joseph Hearn; and junior offensive guard/linebacker Mason Montgomery.
Each of those former Pop Warner standouts have made a successful transition to high school ball, and a few have turned into bona fide stars. Montgomery led Ashland in tackles as a freshman, Volz rushed for more than 1,100 yards as a junior, and White, Greg White's son, emerged as an instant dual-threat weapon for the Grizzlies when he started as a sophomore and promptly sliced up the Japan All-Stars in the 2011 Pacific Rim Bowl.
"I think it just goes to show that if you really work hard at a young age and learn some of the basic skills, you'll eventually be a contributor at the varsity level," said Paul Volz, Greg White's assistant coach during both championship runs.
Neither White nor Volz are surprised by the success of their former players, and in fact expected a few more to work their way up to the varsity team, which may have happened had life not intervened. Changing interests also played a role. Ross Kandaris is now the goal keeper for the Ashland High boys soccer team. Ryan Bottimore is a power-hitting outfielder for the Ashland High baseball team. Jacob Finch, Joe Granger, Craig Contreras, Jake Stranahan and Jon Reeder all moved away.
But when they were all together, Ashland football was a force of nature at the junior pee wee and pee wee divisions, for fourth- and fifth-graders, with weight restrictions. Over that two-year span, White's teams lost one game — to the Medford Raiders — and won 20, mostly in lopsided fashion against teams from throughout the Rogue Valley.
Volz believes the Grizzlies' depth was one of their greatest assets. While most of their opponents suffered a noticeable drop-off when going to the bench, the Grizzlies did not.
"We didn't have one kid on the team we had to hide," Volz said. "Every kid we could play at any time and not be afraid that it would hurt us. "…In Pop Warner you have a minimum play count (for each player on the roster) and we were almost always done with our minimum plays at the half."
When asked if any of those former Pop Warner players have surprised them with how they've developed since, both White and Volz had the same answer: Yes "… Walters. At 5-foot-7, 145 pounds, Walters has made the most of his size, earning a starting spot on both offfense and defense. He didn't play much on White's teams, but has evolved into a reliable target for Danial White who is willing to go over the middle and catch the ball in traffic.
"He was pretty apprehensive with the physical contact," Greg White said of Walters, "but he's really done a 180. He's not the biggest guy but he's not afraid of anybody or anything, and he still has that elusiveness."
The Danial White-led Ashland Bears beat the Eagle Point Blue Eagles 14-0 in the 2006 Rogue Valley Junior Pee Wee championship game to earn Ashland's first trip to state. White scored on a 49-yard punt return and also threw a 33-yard touchdown pass in the win, and two weeks later the Bears completed a perfect 11-0 season at Autzen.
In 2007, the Grizzlies followed their comeback win over Medford with what proved to be the perfect capper to their spectacular two-year run — a dominant victory over Willamette. White said the team had some extra motivation for that game. In the championship banquet the night before, White said, a few boos were directed at the Grizzlies from Willamette's table as Ashland was being introduced. White used the episode to deliver a motivational speech, which apparently worked. Ashland jumped out to an 18-0 lead in the first quarter and held Willamette to 134 yards of total offense in the blowout victory.
After the win, the Grizzlies celebrated at midfield, their hugs and high fives broadcast for all to see on the jumbotron. It was an experience Greg White believes will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
"Going into both those years, the teams knew they were going to be pretty good, and that was their goal," he said. "It was just a super positive, great experience for the kids."