She's only nine games into her first season as head coach of the Ashland High girls basketball team, but Ashley Hafner already has plenty of experience rearranging lineups.
The Grizzlies' rotten luck began when guard Kasydie Winner, one of Ashland's best ball-handlers, tore a knee ligament during a game against Eagle Point last February, costing her the rest what had been a solid freshman season plus her entire sophomore campaign. Then Frankie Brookins, Ashland's only true post, suffered her own season-ending knee injury during summer ball. The injury bug bit the Grizzlies once again on the first day of tryouts, when senior guard Sadie Kasiah fell victim to a torn ACL.
That's three major knee injuries to three would-be starters, all wiped off the roster before Ashland completed a single practice for the 2013-14 season. And though Kasiah may still play — she's planning on postponing knee surgery and giving it a go some time this month — Hafner has already endured her first shift-on-the-fly coaching test.
So far, the former Southern Oregon University Raider is pleased with the results. The Grizzlies (4-5) won two of their first three games, tumbled through a three-game losing streak, then bounced back for a third-place finish at last week's Southern Oregon Subaru Classic.
"I think probably the biggest challenge is trying to make sure that you're working with all of those puzzle pieces but keeping that from the girls so that they're constantly staying positive and focused," said Hafner, who was the varsity assistant for two years under former head coach Emily Hesse.
Hafner is optimistic that the Grizzlies will continue to improve, but is more concerned with the big picture. Performing on the court is important, she says, but there's more to it than that.
"Really, the main thing for us is for me to share my passion for basketball to those girls," she said. "They need to take pride in what they're doing and be accountable, and just have fun."
The Grizzlies appear to be on the right track despite the setbacks. Junior guard Georgia Williams, usually a slashing wing, has been thrust into a new role as the team's primary ball handler, freshman post Leilani Sukles has emerged as a valuable interior defender and sophomore guard Ava Altig has logged crucial minutes as a reliable distributor, taking some of the pressure off Williams.
Other key Grizzlies include sharpshooter Michaela Dunn, a junior, senior wing Hanna Greenberg, junior guard Hannah Teixeira and junior post McKenna Read.
"We went 13 (players) deep in the tournament — we're just kind of seeing how things come together," Hafner said.
Clearly the team's best overall player, and one of the best all-around players in the Rogue Valley, Williams is often targeted by opposing defenses. That hasn't stopped the smooth 6-footer from putting up some impressive numbers. Her 2013-14 resume already includes a 28-point, 11-rebound, five-block gem Saturday in Ashland's third-place win over Santiam Christian.
"I think she's grown tremendously," Hafner said of Williams. "She's one of the hardest-working high school athletes I've ever seen. Her talent level puts her in a leadership position and that's not her natural tendency because she's not a super vocal person, but she was definitely a leader during the (Subaru Classic)."
Strategy-wise, Ashland is a mixed bag that's still evolving. Hafner has the Grizzlies playing both man-to-man and zone defense depending on matchups, while offensively the Grizzlies have ran five different schemes, including a newly-installed motion that's still a work in progress.
Ashland has scored an average of 48.8 points in its four wins, but only 34 in its five losses.
"I think we've had some ups and downs," Hafner said. "I thought our first (Subaru Classic) game was probably our best game. Then we had a pretty tough showing, but we learned some stuff and were able to apply it to the third game. We're young, so we're constantly learning and adjusting and revisiting what we're trying to do on any given night. There's a ton of learning going on every day."
The Grizzles' next learning experience comes Tuesday when they kickoff their Skyline Conference affiliation with a game against North Valley.
Ashland is technically a member of the two-team Southern Oregon Hybrid Class 5A League, but has aligned with the 4A Skyline in an effort to increase the number of competitive games on its schedule.
As far as goals are concerned, the Grizzlies have decided to break the season down into small chunks. They've already accomplished their first goal by claiming third at the Classic. Looking ahead, they also aspire to win a postseason game, something Ashland hasn't accomplished since 2010.
Hafner believes a breakthrough may be on the horizon.
"We're really looking forward to getting back in the gym and getting some more practice time in," she said. "It's starting to come together."
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or email@example.com