Matt Lipski still gets shakes his head in disgust when he describes the play. It was a fifth-grade Manny's League game, and Lipski and the rest of his Ashland teammates were facing their archrivals from the north &

Crater.

Right before halftime, Crater guard Nick Brothers barely beat the hafltime buzzer (or did he?) with a stunning halfcourt shot. The two teams fought to a virtual draw through the next two quarters and two overtime sessions before Crater finally prevailed in double OT. But to Lipski, it never should have come down to extra time.

"I was not happy about that because it was obvious that (Brothers) didn't get it off," Lipski said during Wednesday's shoot-around, as he prepared to face the Comets for perhaps the last time. "They gave it to him because it was a great shot. He didn't get that shot off."

Lipski and company did eventually get over that loss, and in the years that followed evolved into one of the most successful basketball classes in Ashland history. In the three-year stretch between grades six and eight, the Grizzlies won 65 games against just 12 losses, a run that, according to then head coach Ed Houghton, included 15 straight wins over North Medford and 10 wins over South Medford.

A few key players who made that fantastic run possible have since given up basketball, but the rest &

Lipski, Dillon Thigpen, Cameron Clement, Ethan Moskowitz, Austin Raymond and Jesse Javna &

are still running up and down the floor almost every day, taking Ashland basketball to new heights. Now, they're seniors, and on Friday that group has a golden opportunity to do something big, against its greatest rival, in a game they've looked forward to all season and for some much longer: if the Grizzlies beat the Comets, they will all but clinch Ashland's second straight Southern Sky Conference championship. That would mark the first time Ashland has won back-to-back league titles since 1986.

"It's always been the focus," Moskowitz admitted. "We knew it was going to come down to Crater the whole year. Before the season started some of our coaches were saying Mazama should be pretty good, but we knew Crater was going to be the one to beat. It's just fun that it's all coming full circle. From sixth grade to now, Crater's been our arch nemesis."

And from sixth grade to now, the Ashland-Crater series has looked pretty much the same. Ashland still relies heavily on an inside game that's anchored upon the power and size of Lipski and the ferocity of Raymond; Ashland still likes to use its quickness in the backcourt to employ various pressure defenses; and Ashland still gets its points from all over the place, though Thigpen and Lipski have emerged as the Grizzlies' most consistent scoring threats.

Those specific talents served the Grizzlies well throughout the middle school years, and to their former head coach it's no surprise that they're still winning games at an impressive clip as high schoolers. After all, says Houghton, the Grizzlies don't have a bad apple in the bunch. They've always been more interested in winning games than padding their stats.

"In all the years I coached them, only one time did I ever feel that it was all about me," said Houghton, referring to the selfish attitude that can infiltrate less successful teams. "They were just very team-oriented. If I even sensed it I came down really hard on them about that, and at that age it's pretty amazing."

Thigpen says the team's selfless style reflects its unity off the court, which crosses class lines. The seniors have played together the longest, but Thigpen refers to all his teammates his "best friends." The Grizzlies have certainly put the time in to retain that kind of relationship. For most, summer has usually meant YMCA basketball, and at a school that's known for its athletic diversity &

Ashland High's most popular sport, after all, may be snowboarding &

the AHS basketball team is mostly a one-sport crew.

"Ethan and I played freshman football," Thigpen said with a smile, "but I guess football wasn't for us. We were too small."

Not so for Lipski. The 6-foot-9 post is headed to University of Montana on a football scholarship. But his first love was basketball, and he clearly enjoys looking back on the good old days.

"We have fun during games," he says, trying to hold back a laugh as Moskowitz attempts to sabotage the interview. "We really enjoy hanging out with each other on and off the court. It's really like another family for all of us. That team chemistry and that camaraderie has led to a lot of success for us and I think it's because we've kept that core group together."

Sports editor can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.