For Talon Haggard, Ashland High School's dream year of boys' athletics was, at best, bittersweet.

For Talon Haggard, Ashland High School's dream year of boys' athletics was, at best, bittersweet.

Once an all-conference performer, an injured shoulder earned Haggard a front row seat for a junior year that saw the football team win its conference and advance to the state quarterfinals, the basketball team make the state playoffs and the baseball team capture the Class 5A state championship.

"It was tough on me," Haggard recalled Wednesday during a break in the Grizzlies' preparation for Friday's football home opener against Phoenix.

"Between football having an 11-1 season without me, the basketball team going to the playoffs and the baseball team winning the state championship — and I had to miss all of that. It's tested my patience a lot and I think I've grown from it."

Which makes the emotions that Haggard is experiencing now — as starting quarterback for the defending Southern Sky Conference champion football team — all the more satisfying.

"It means a lot just to be out here and be healthy," he said. "There's a lot of pressure, just trying to compete with the season they had. I wish I could have been a part of it more than I was. I was on the sidelines on a headset, calling the defense."

Two years ago, Haggard was right in the middle of things, earning second-team all-Southern Sky honors as a tight end and was a key contributor on the basketball floor, as well.

Then it all came crashing down. Haggard, a left-hander, suffered torn cartilage in the labrum of his right shoulder and underwent surgery in early March 2007.

Several months of intensive rehabilitation left him optimistic that he could return in time to see some action on the field last fall, but he reinjured the shoulder in a freak accident. That necessitated a second surgery by Ashland surgeon Dr. Hal Townsend in October, sidelining him for all of the 2007-08 school year.

After a layoff of more than 17 months, Haggard was back on the field this summer and under center for the season-opener against Henley last week.

"I've never been that nervous for a game," he said. "It was my first game in more than a year and a half. I'd been waiting so long. I was so amped and nervous; it was crazy."

Haggard certainly has big shoes to fill, replacing 2007 signal-caller Matt Dierks, who threw for 1,728 yards and 24 touchdowns in pacing the Grizzlies to a perfect 10-0 regular season and their first conference championship since 1998.

"Matt had a stronger cast of characters around him," Ashland coach Charlie Hall said. "It was a senior-dominated team that had quite a bit of experience. (Opponents) really couldn't take one guy away."

Haggard, who hadn't played quarterback since a stint in a Pop Warner league years ago, and Hall first discussed the idea of Haggard taking snaps prior to the 2007 season. After his season on the sideline, he beat out sophomore Jake Scarminach during camp to win the starting job.

"He's such a good athlete he can play almost any position on the field," Hall said. "He's got a tremendously strong arm. He can stand on the 40-yard line and throw the ball 60 yards."

It's learning when and where to throw the ball that has been Hall's chief concern this summer.

"Throwing the ball far and being a quarterback are two different things," Hall explained. "The things Talon needs to keep working on are defensive recognition and decision making."

In his first varsity game at quarterback, Haggard threw a pair of interceptions while completing 12 of 22 passes for 140 yards. He ran for 69 yards on 13 carries and scored three touchdowns, rallying the team from a 21-7 deficit to pull out a 28-21 victory over Henley.

The Grizzlies (1-0) trailed 21-20 midway through the final quarter before Haggard marched the team to the winning score with less than three minutes remaining.

"Being new to the quarterback position, he kind of dug himself a hole with the two interceptions, but did a better job of protecting the football in the second half and utilizing his running ability," Hall said.

Haggard, at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds of muscle, will be counted on to win as much with his legs as his arm.

Becoming a team leader is something he is still getting used to.

"I try to lead by example," he said. "I'm not a loud guy. I don't talk much."

He has earned the respect and confidence of his teammates.

"The kids rally around Talon," Hall said. "Last year, our team rallied around Matt Dierks, even though Matt hadn't had any varsity experience. They still rallied around him; they believed in him. And I think the same is true with Talon. He has a charisma and confidence — and humble at the same time — that the kids believe in him."

"In that position, you've got to have a few intangibles, someone who can deal with pressure, because all eyes are on you," Hall said. "I believe Talon has enough poise to be able to do well in that position."

Haggard's next chance to prove himself comes Friday, when the Grizzlies host rival Phoenix (1-0) in a non-league contest.

The Pirates were just 2-7 last season, including a 41-0 loss to Ashland, but opened their season a week ago with a 7-0 victory over Douglas.

Junior quarterback Chris Kammel is a returning starter and threw a touchdown pass last week, while junior Skyler Reagan is the team's top receiver. Phoenix has scored more than 10 points just twice in its last 10 games.

"They're a much improved team from what we saw last year," Hall said of the Pirates, picked by coaches to finish fourth in the five-team Sunset League.

"They have a couple of really big kids," Hall said of 290-pound senior James Humphries and 275-pounder John Florey.