It would appear that Ashland High's football game against Marist tonight will be more competitive than in the past few seasons.
That's a good sign for the Grizzlies, at least, who lost the previous two years in Midwestern League play by a combined score of 96-0. In one of those seasons, 2011, Ashland was ranked ninth in the state, the same as it is this time around in the OregonLive Class 5A poll.
Three years ago, when the teams weren't in the same league, Marist rolled to a 31-0 victory.
But this is a new campaign, and there are indications the gap between Marist, which has put together three straight unbeaten MWL seasons, and Ashland is narrower.
Grizzlies coach Charlie Hall doesn't expect a result similar to recent years.
"I'd be really disappointed if that happens," he said. "Then I'd have to take the team to the nearest sports psychologist to deal with how to prepare for a game like that."
The Grizzlies have racked up two lopsided victories, 38-0 over Klamath Union and, last Friday, 51-14 over Lebanon. They also have an exhibition victory over the Japan all-stars under their belt.
Marist is ranked sixth with a 1-1 record. It lost the season opener to third-ranked West Albany, 17-14, then rebounded with a 38-16 triumph over Grant.
Marist coach Frank Geske doesn't expect Ashland to roll over when the Spartans hit town.
"Sure it'll be different," said Geske, whose team in 2011 was the last visitor to win in Ashland. "They aren't the same team they've been the last three years, and we aren't, either. We hope to be at the level of execution that they've been at. It better happen (tonight) or we could end up with a loss. We don't have the bell cows that we have had that can bail us out of trouble before execution becomes the norm."
Last year, the Spartans relied heavily on quarterback Kamerun Smith, who now plays for Southern Oregon University, and Austin Baird, a running back/defensive back who is now at Portland State.
This year, they're loaded up front, with a half-dozen starters in the 240-pound range. Leading the way is two-way all-state lineman Korey Thompson, a 6-foot, 281-pound senior.
"Their strength is definitely up front on offense and defense," said Hall. "They win games by winning the trenches. That's what we'll face (tonight). They'll try to control the line of scrimmage with their running game.
"If they have their way and can run the football at will down our throat against our best effort to stop the run, then it's going to be a long night. That will be a key."
Andrew Park, the MWL second-team running back in all-star voting behind teammate Baird last year, paces the ground game. He was bottled up by West Albany but the found the end zone against Grant.
Park amassed 60 yards on seven carries against Ashland in a 47-0 win in 2012. That game came one week after Marist had its 34-game regular-season winning streak snapped by Sherwood.
Sophomore Brody Cooper emerged from a four-player battle this fall to earn the start at quarterback for the Spartans. He was picked off twice against West Albany but connected for a pair of long touchdowns, 65 and 53 yards, with Dustin Jones in the win over Grant.
Kashi Hall added two rushing touchdowns against Grant.
Marist starts 10 seniors on defense, and six of the front seven are returning starters.
"We have to get points on the board if we're going to have a chance to win," said Hall. "That's the first thing. ... A real big key is how the first two or three series on offense go. We'll see where it goes from there."
Geske saw improvement in his team from Week 1 to Week 2.
"We're definitely getting better," he said, "there's no doubt about it. These kids have always continued to improve throughout the season. We're no different than Ashland. Health plays a major part in that stuff. We'll be a real good team when we get some people back."
The Spartans are missing a few players due to injuries that will keep them out a couple weeks, but Geske declined to give details.
Ashland is led offensively by senior quarterback Danial White and junior running back Ryne Robitz and on both sides by linebacker/fullback Mason Montgomery, a four-year starter who Geske is quite familiar with.
"Your defense is never going to be bad with ol' deuce in the middle," said Geske, referring to the No. 2 worn by Montgomery, who was the league's co-player of the year last season. "He's been pretty good for a few years. We'll be happy to see him go."
Geske also praised Ashland's special teams play with kicker Matt Hedges and the Grizzlies' crispness on offense.
"They're well-coached and play as a team," said Geske. "They have a little bit more in their arsenal this year. I don't know whether that's because of individual talent or collective talent. I think they've played better than what their talent level is, really. They look almost close to year-end form, that's what I meant by that. They seem to be playing Game 7 or 8 on offense."
Against Lebanon, Robitz rushed for 99 yards and scored on runs of 10 and 2 yards.
White threw scoring passes of 42 yards to sophomore Shashi Penn and 6 yards to senior Sebastian Warren.
Penn also had an 84-yard punt return and a 1-yard TD run.