Three days after his team was eliminated from the Class 5A state playoffs and about four months after its first (unofficial) game against the Japan All-Stars in Kobe, Japan, Ashland High head coach Charlie Hall on Tuesday looked back on what turned out to be a banner year for the Grizzlies.
Hall knew his squad had big-time potential before the season began and it certainly met those expectations, running the table for an undefeated regular season, claiming the school's first-ever Midwestern League title and advancing to the 5A semifinals for the first time in 15 years.
It took defending state champion Sherwood to finally end the Grizzlies' run with a decisive 57-12 rout Saturday, but not before Ashland put together the program's most successful campaign since winning it all in 1998.
"I think our seniors did a great job being leaders and sharing the limelight with everybody," said Hall, who completed his ninth season at the helm. "It was very much a true team this year."
Hall praised quarterback Danial White and linebacker Mason Montgomery, both seniors, for leading their respective units all season.
White, a second-team all-MWL pick, passed for 2,042 yards and 25 touchdowns with only three interceptions and also led the team in rushing with 647 yards and 11 touchdowns. And he was at his best when the Grizzlies needed him most, running for a team-high 136 yards and two scores, including what turned out to be a game-winning 62-yard scamper, in Ashland's quarterfinal win over Roosevelt, and passing for 199 yards and two touchdowns on a sore ankle against Sherwood, the second-ranked defense in the state.
Montgomery, the two-time MWL defensive player of the year, was equally important to the Grizz defense. He led the team in tackles (117) for the fourth year in a row, and also had 81/2 tackles for a loss, 31/2 sacks and two fumble recoveries.
"Usually, replacing a quarterback is a little harder than replacing a linebacker, but (Montgomery) was pretty special," Hall said. "Both of those guys are going to be huge shoes to fill on both sides of the ball. The good thing about this year is we lose a lot of seniors but we've got quite a bit of young guys coming back and they're only going to get better. And now, they should have an idea what it takes to move on (in the playoffs)."
That senior class was 14 players strong and will go down as one of Ashland's best-ever football groups, though this year's semifinal run is only part of the reason. There was also the march to the state quarterfinals in 2011, plus the two Pop Warner state championships back when they were still in grade school.
Besides White and Montgomery, the Grizzlies who just played their last prep football game were: Noah Kramer, Matt Hedges, Sebasatian Warren, Tanner Shumway, Gordon Grafton, Carter Glick, Joe Hearn, Cody Frost-Eisenberg, Asher Beasley, Tyree Heesacker, Nate Carver and Emory Geffen. Hedges led the Grizzlies with 579 yards receiving and seven touchdowns, Glick had a team-high three interceptions, Beasley was fourth on the team with 51 tackles and Heesacker and Frost-Eisenberg tied for the team high in sacks (five).
"They've had a great journey," Hall said. "Their freshmen year was bad — they only won one game. So it's interesting. Nobody remembers that stuff, but they came back from a really rough freshmen year "¦ playing basically an old SOC (6A) schedule. So they got tested at an early age and they got toughened up."
The run to the final four was thrilling and stuffed with Grizz highlights. It began with a 38-0 home win over Klamath Union on Aug. 30, and also included banner wins over Marist and Springfield followed by a playoff beatdown of Pendleton and that gritty 13-7 road win over Roosevelt.
Rolling out one of the most explosive offenses in recent team history, the Grizzlies outscored their regular-season opponents 41-15 on average while motoring up and down the field for 366 yards per game.
Trying to play the role of spoiler, the Grizzlies finally stumbled against top-ranked Sherwood, which on Saturday will be going for its third state championship in four years before moving up to the 6A level next season. The Bowmen, who have now won 51 of their last 52 games, outgained the Grizzlies 557 yards to 317, rushed for 512 yards and scored two touchdowns in the last 3 minutes, 30 seconds of the first half to take a commanding 30-6 lead into the break.
Ashland looked like it would be able to move the ball against Sherwood in the early going, but a few key missteps left the door open for another Bowmen blowout. A long completion from White to Hedges on the third play of the game was wiped out by an illegal procedure penalty, and the Grizzlies couldn't cash in on a first-and-goal from the 9 thanks in part to a delay of game penalty.
Meanwhile, the Bowmen executed their Wing-T offense to near perfection, as usual, springing touchdown runs of 66, 62, 25 and 23 yards against an Ashland defense that had held its previous 12 opponents to 17.3 points and 291 yards per game game on average.
"They were as good as advertised," Hall said of the Bowmen. "The thing that's so frustrating is that when you play those guys you have to change your approach defensively because of what they do. They have their trap game, they have the off-tackle game and you really don't know where the ball's going to go because all the blocking schemes look the same."
Hall said it would have taken a perfect game in order for the Grizzlies to pull off the upset and he was happy with the effort, but still wonders what would have happened had Ashland not stumbled when it had a chance to strike first.
"I would have liked to have seen that play out a little better," he said. "Against a team like that you need to get that magic early and then get that confidence. Momentum in any sport is an asset and it would have been nice to get that."
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org.