After five days of celebrating what they have in common with each other, the Ashland High and Japanese football teams are almost ready to settle their differences on the football field.
Kickoff for the 10th annual Pacific Rim Bowl is slated for 7:30 tonight at Walter A. Phillips Field. General admission is $5; Ashland students get in free.
The Japanese lead the all-time series 5-4 after winning the last three games by a combined score of 100-6, including a 26-6 victory in 2005. That game was played in Japan, the site of five of the contests.
In an attempt to build excitement, the school will host a tailgate party starting at — p.m. in the practice-field area. Vehicles will not be allowed on the infield but can use the track.
Quarterbacking Ashland's offense will be Matt Dierks, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound senior-to-be who has spent the last two years learning the position behind Sam Littleton and Gus Gaviglio. Though Dierks enters the season with very little varsity experience behind center, he has already gained at least one major fan.
"I feel really good about Matt's development as a quarterback," Ashland head coach Charlie Hall said after Wednesday's practice. "He's developed a whole other competitive side of him that he wants to be successful, and I think he needed to have that as a quarterback. The other thing is that he's learned the game through the eyes of a quarterback, and now he's making better decisions, he understands coverages, he's looking off defensive backs. He's doing things that's been hard to teach previous quarterbacks."
Dierks leads an offense that will likely look slightly different than it did during the 2005 and 2006 seasons under Hall, who enters his third year at the helm. In an attempt to spread the field under Hall, the Grizzlies often lined up with only one running back in the backfield. This season, Ashland will go "more conventional," and use more two-back sets, with a fullback, a tight end and two wide receivers.
The change is being made to try to capitalize on what Hall said he believes is the Grizzlies' greatest strength, a deep and talented backfield that includes halfbacks Pat Hutchinson and Lewis Sebrell and fullbacks Julian Ewald and Josh Scarminach.
"The core, the best athletes, are playing the running back position," he said.
Charlie Sebrell and Sam Gaviglio will be Dierks' primary receiving targets, along with slots Josh Hogeland and Max Gordon.
The lines on both sides of the ball are a work in progress, and Friday's game will help separate the starters from the backups. There is at least one standout there, however: senior right tackle Matt Lipski (6-9, 360), who participated in four major Division I college camps over the summer, Hall said, and has "exponentially improved" since last season.
Defensively, Ewald, Scarminach and Jack Rasmussen anchor an athletic linebacker unit, and the defensive backs will include Gaviglio, Dierks, Hogeland and Will Bowers.
With still a month to go before the start of the regular season, the Grizzlies are more focused on fine-tuning than winning.
"I think it's more important that we do our job and get what we need to get done," Hogeland said. "Know your role, so when we come to the season we have that intensity and understanding of what we need to do."
As for the Japanese All-stars, they will try to take advantage of their superior quickness. Leading the way in that department is team captain Masaki Matsubara, a 5-foot-7, 149-pound wide receiver. Matsubara was injured in Tuesday's passing league but is expected to play.
"We can't win by power because they're really big, so we're going to try to win by speed," Japan defensive tackle Shunsuke Hatada said.
That probably means spreading the field and attacking the perimeter of Ashland's defense. Japan's speed advantage should be cut slightly in the U.S., however. American football field dimensions are more narrow, and the Japanese will not be allowed to cut block.
Strategy aside, Japanese head coach Toshio Sakurama also downplayed the significance of the final score as he walked off the practice field Wednesday on his way to playing a round of golf.
"Winning is very important, of course," he said through an interpreter, "but it's not just a game. It's a cultural exchange and a friendship between Ashland and Japan. Just bonding is the most important thing for us."
Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at 482-3456, ext. 224, or joe.
Ashland, Japan turn attention to game