Danial White saw this coming a year ago. The perfect regular season (so far), the landmark win over Marist, the sensational play of the Ashland offense.
But the Grizzlies' senior quarterback wanted to make sure his teammates were on board. So after Ashland's season-ending playoff loss to West Albany last November, White delivered a message to his fellow juniors:
"Next season starts tomorrow," he said. "We gotta get ready."
Who: Ashland High senior quarterback.
What: White has passed for 1,487 yards and 17 touchdowns and ran for 360 yards and nine scores and is on pace to lead the Grizzlies in total offense for the third year in a row.
Up next: Ashland at Eagle Point, 7 p.m. Friday.
He did. They did. And what a season it has been for Ashland High football.
Heading into Friday's game at Eagle Point the No. 3-ranked Grizzlies have already locked up their first Midwestern League title and are one win away from pinning down their first perfect regular season since 2007. As an added bonus, the Grizzlies (8-0, 5-0 MWL), one of only two undefeated teams remaining in 5A football, should secure an automatic berth to the 16-team playoff tournament with a win over the Eagles (5-3, 4-2 MWL) and at least one home playoff game.
White has been a huge part of the success. The 6-foot, 180-pound lefty has completed 60 percent of his passes (104-for-172) for 1,487 yards and 17 touchdowns with only three interceptions, and also has ran for 360 yards and nine more scores. His season highlights, which are too many to list in one story, include a 50-yard bomb to Matt Hedges to clinch Ashland's 21-7 win over defending MWL champion Marist on Sept. 13 and a 49-yard scramble to punch out Springfield 34-28 two weeks later.
White may have been only half joking when he said that "Both those plays were drawn up in the dirt."
Both plays also perfectly illustrate how far White has come since a tumultuous junior year that included some painful losses and a midseason benching.
In 2012, White entered the season as the clear-cut starter. He was coming off a big sophomore campaign in which he led the team in total offense and was looking to take the next step in his development. But those plans took a dramatic turn when White was benched in favor of then-senior Connor Kaegi in Week 6. Kaegi completed 9 of 14 passes for 186 yards in that homecoming win over North Eugene and remained the starter the rest of the season.
White continued to see action as the dual-threat second option QB, usually inserted in running situations — he ended up leading the team in total offense again. But he never regained his starting spot, and his limited action against West Albany — he ran six times for 15 yards and completed 1 of 2 passes for two yards — only accentuated the demotion.
Looking back, White said his biggest regret is that he couldn't do more to help the Grizzlies down the stretch.
"It was pretty hard," he said. "I mean, going from the guy to sharing the job was not easy for me because I love the game so much and I want to be out there all the time. I want the ball in my hands and to be able to make plays, help the team in whatever way I can. So when that role was diminished for me it was kind of hard, but it's not about me. It's about the team, so that's the way I kind of looked at it during the season."
Watching games from the sideline, White gained a deeper appreciation for hearing his number called.
"It taught me some lessons," he said. "And I think those lessons have helped me prepare more for this season and not take anything for granted. Now that that's been there, it's always in the back of my mind. I can't take a play off. I gotta focus every play."
Already driven to succeed, White was even more motivated to improve his strengths and eliminate his weaknesses over the offseason. All the hard work appears to have paid off. White is enjoying his best season statistically and has added the long bomb to his repertoire, a weapon which has made life miserable for Grizzly opponents.
The deep pass against Marist provided a perfect example of White's improvement. Facing a crucial third-and-12 at midfield, White dropped back and spotted Hedges on a post route. Hedges was open, but only a perfect throw would do the job. White delivered, hitting Hedges in stride to give the Grizzlies a two-touchdown lead.
"He's very accurate on the deep ball this year," Ashland head coach Charlie Hall said. "He's got some great deep balls that he's thrown, especially to Matt Hedges, so we've pushed the ball down the field through the air, which we weren't able to do earlier in (White's) career. And a lot of that is his maturation and arm strength."
Now, White is one victory away from leading the Grizzlies to their first outright league championship since they were Southern Sky Conference champions in 2007. That one victory probably won't be easy, however. And to get it, White will have to exorcise another demon. Two years ago, the Grizzlies strutted into Eagle Point riding a five-game winning streak, only to turn the ball over four times in a stunning 20-14 loss.
White, who threw two interceptions that night, is looking forward to getting another crack at the Eagles.
"I just remember being really disappointed after the game," he said. "The coaches weren't happy and we weren't happy with our performance. So it has kind of left a bad taste in our mouth and we really want to go over there and show them what we've got."
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 and firstname.lastname@example.org.