For Ashland High linebacker Mason Montgomery, the Grizzlies' phenomenal run through the first two-thirds of their 2013 schedule has inspired plenty of emotions. But surprise isn't one of them.
"I'm not sure if we expected it, but we expected to have a good year this year and this is what we wanted," he said prior to Wednesday's practice at Ashland High School. "And after all the work in the offseason I feel like we've earned it as well."
It's hard to argue with the results.
When/Where: 7 p.m. Friday at Walter A. Phillips Feild.
At Stake: Ashland is No. 5 in the OSAA power rankings and is looking to maintain its position in order to secure a first-round playoff bye.
With three games left on its regular season schedule Ashland has positioned itself nicely for what could be a long playoff run. The Grizzlies, ranked third in the latest Oregonlive Class 5A media poll and fifth in the OSAA power rankings, are 6-0 overall and 4-0 in the Midwestern League heading into Friday's nonleague game against 4A Sutherlin. If they finish strong with wins over Sutherlin, Willamette next week and at Eagle Point on Oct. 25, they'll not only secure their first MWL title but also likely clinch an automatic berth to the 16-team state playoffs. The top eight teams in the final OSAA power rankings — the rankings freeze on Oct. 26 — have the luxury of skipping the play-in round and will host first-round playoff games. If the Grizzlies finish in the top four, they would be in line to host a quarterfinal game as well.
Ashland hasn't advanced past the state quarterfinals since winning the big-school (then Class 4A) state championship in 1998.
"I hope to gosh that we finish in the top eight," said Ashland head coach Charlie Hall, who was an assistant in 1998.
Ashland isn't expected to have any trouble with Sutherlin. The Bulldogs of the Far West League are 1-5 — they pulled out a 44-37 shootout victory over Brookings-Harbor — and have been outscored a combined 199-55 in their five losses. If they were taking bets in Vegas, the spread would be about 50 points.
But, Hall insists, that doesn't mean Ashland has nothing to gain by playing the overmatched Bulldogs. Every Friday night provides another opportunity to tune the machine under the lights and experiment with new toys that may come in handy when the stakes are much higher.
"Hopefully, we can control the game at halftime or earlier and we can get some other guys in the game," Hall said. "We're always looking at some different personnel groups, so we might play with a little bit of a different personnel group. That's kind of a fun thing to do, and it doesn't disrupt the rhythm that we've been doing for the last seven weeks."
Even though the Grizzlies probably won't need anything close to a perfect game in order to win big Friday, staying sharp will be a focus against Sutherlin.
"You just gotta make sure you're getting better every week because you know the other teams in the state are getting better," said Montgomery, who leads the Grizzlies with 60 tackles. "And you've got to make sure you're not looking too far forward but you're also keeping that in mind. So keep practicing hard regardless of who you're playing and get your execution down and take care of the little things while you can."
Swatting away the injury bug would help, too. The Grizzlies have several key players who have been out or limited by injuries in recent weeks, but at least two are expected to play this weekend. Junior running back Ryne Robitz, who has rushed for a team-high 355 yards and five touchdowns, has been out since suffering a hip pointer Sept. 20 at Churchill but is expected to play Friday. And junior two-way lineman Seth Cowan, who sprained his knee three weeks ago and only played about 20 snaps last week at North Eugene, is expected to see his playing time doubled against Sutherlin.
The injuries have forced the Grizzlies to go to their bench, which Hall says may have been a blessing in disguise. Sophomore Chance Swenson has filled in admirably, starting at both tackle positions and left guard, sophomore Michael Pruitt had three tackles and a sack at North Eugene and Robitz's replacement, sophomore Mason Dow, exploded for 130 yards rushing on only 10 carries and also added a 26-yard touchdown reception against the Highlanders.
"A lot of years it's a big dropoff between first and second string," Hall said, "but this year, because we have better depth, we can actually compete against each other (in practice) more like a college team. We're actually getting good work. I think it makes us a lot better. We've had practices a little shorter, but a little more intense."
And now on Friday, with a few more pieces available, the Grizzlies hope to take the next step toward an undefeated regular season. Montgomery is confident they won't lose their focus.
"I think it's just business as usual," he said. "We gotta take care of business these next few games like any other game. But we know the situation we're in and we just want to keep performing at a high level. That's what we always try to do whenever we come out here."