Displaying the ball control of a team that hasn't lost since early September, the Grizzlies take turns passing the ball across the turf against a mock defense at Dutch Meyer Field.
CENTRAL POINT — Displaying the ball control of a team that hasn't lost since early September, the Grizzlies take turns passing the ball across the turf against a mock defense at Dutch Meyer Field. In the background, head coach Brad Roupp's voice can be heard counting passes: "One, two, three, four, five, six "¦"
Every series eventually ends, either with a goal, or a steal, or a turnover, and sometimes laughter — then a new ball is thrown in and the drill starts over. The fluid, loose exhibition answers at least one question even before it's asked: If the pressure of being a part of the biggest game in Ashland High soccer history is getting to the Grizzlies, they're doing a good job hiding it.
"The way we feel and the way we've been talking is that we have a lot to win but nothing to lose," Roupp said as he booted balls back into play. "We feel that we've already capped this season by being as successful as we have been, so the pressure is off. There's a banner to win, but we've had a banner season."
The third-ranked Ashland High boys soccer team will go for that banner Saturday in Hillsboro, where the Grizzlies (15-1-1) will take on the fourth-ranked Churchill Lancers (16-2) at Liberty High School in the OSAA Class 5A state championship game.
Both teams will be seeking their first-ever state title, and both enter the game red hot — Ashland has won 11 games in a row and Churchill nine.
Only one team will enter the game at full strength, however. Churchill will play without junior forward Alonzo Reyes, who was tagged with a red card in the semifinals, earning him an automatic one-game suspension.
That loss likely won't effect the Lancers' style of play too much, said Ashland senior halfback Kai Caderett-Stewart, who along with the rest of the Grizzlies recently watched game film of Churchill's semifinal win over Bend. According to Caderett-Stewart, the Lancers boast fantastic individual dribbling skills and try to attack defenses with one-on-one runs to the goal.
"So, the defense is going to have to be on their game," he said.
The numbers support that claim. Churchill has scored nine goals in three playoff wins. Before that, the Lancers capped the regular season with six straight wins by a combined score of 40-2.
"We haven't seen some dribblers like they have other than South Medford," said Roupp, referring to Ashland's last loss, a 1-0 setback back on Sept. 9. "So, we are aware that we have to defend in small groups. We can't leave one of our defenders alone to just take care of business."
Ashland is also loaded with talented one-on-one dribblers — midfielder Nate Roupp and forwards Simon Linsday and Adam Pavlich are always dangerous — but are most effective when spreading the ball around. That strength was on full display during the second half of Tuesday's semifinal win over Sherwood, when the Grizzlies almost toyed with the Bowmen defense while scoring three goals.
Ashland is confident that it will have similar success Saturday on the artificial surface at Liberty High School.
"The ball will move a lot faster," Ashland senior fullback Ryan Chasmar said, "and if we can get into our passing and not create too many turnovers I think we'll be all right."
Ashland and Churchill had two common opponents this season: Roseburg and North Eugene. The Grizzlies trounced Roseburg 4-1 and edged North Eugene 1-0 in overtime in the state quarterfinals; the Lancers lost to Roseburg 5-1 and beat North Eugene twice, 2-0 and 7-1.
Both teams will be making their first state championship game appearance. How they handle that pressure initially, said coach Roupp, could go a long way toward determining a winner.
"That's the unknown," he said. "How much will that affect either team and individual players, and how quickly can we recover from those jitters into a team that's playing well and thinking well? It's a thinking game and we need to be thinking right and we need to know that it's a long game and you can put it away at any point, but it doesn't have to be right away."
No matter what happens against Churchill, said Chasmar, the season has been one for the books.
"It feels like it was meant to be this way," he said. "We've been working toward this since we were so little. As a whole, most of our team has played together for so long and it seems like a perfect way to end our whle career together, in the state finals game. If we could play well together it would be a great way to finish off what we've built up for so long."
Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or email@example.com