Nick Hall didn't hesitate when stating the goal of the Ashland High football team, which might explain his oversight.

Nick Hall didn't hesitate when stating the goal of the Ashland High football team, which might explain his oversight.

"Our goal is to win conference," said the senior receiver/cornerback. "We set our goals in a meeting and unanimously that was our goal."

But Nick, the Grizzlies were Southern Sky Conference champions last season and were left out of the playoffs, right?

"Oh yeah," he added with a chuckle, "and make the playoffs — that's the other goal."

Hall's brief memory lapse is understandable. It's rare for a high school team to finish tied atop the conference standings, yet miss out on the postseason, but that's exactly what happened to the Grizzlies in 2008 after a three-way coin flip landed in favor of fellow co-SSC champions Crater and Klamath Union.

The likelihood of a similar situation costing Ashland, or any other SSC team for that matter, is much smaller this season since the Southern Sky will send three teams to the Class 5A state playoffs instead of two. Still, with last year's frustrating finish still fresh in their memory, the Grizzlies aren't looking to tempt fate.

"I don't want to leave it to any chance," senior offensive lineman Joe Maulsby said. "That's how I'm going to play this season. I don't want to have a freaking coin toss be the thing that gets us out of here."

If the Grizzlies don't make the playoffs, it probably won't be for lack of offense. While Ashland will be hard pressed to match last year's team in terms of sheer numbers — the Grizzlies averaged a whopping 383 yards and 30 points in 2008 — it has experience at key positions and "similar body types," as head coach Charlie Hall puts it, everywhere else.

Three of five starters on the offensive line return, including Maulsby at right tackle, senior Jordan Wright at left tackle and junior Kevin Schilling at center. Also back is third-leading rusher Issa Shahin, a senior, and third-leading receiver Oliver Krant, also a senior.

The biggest question facing the Grizz offense could be at quarterback, but that has less to do with junior Jake Scarminach that it does with the do-it-all signal caller he's replacing. Last year, Talon Haggard put together one of the most spectacular seasons in Ashland history, racking up 2,941 yards of total offense — 1,229 rushing — as a senior. Charlie Hall describes Scarminach as a smaller version of Haggard — Scarminach is 6-foot, 175 pounds while Haggard was listed at 6-2, 200 — but hopes that the Grizz offensive line will allow Scarminach to mostly execute with his arm and occasionally improvise with his feet instead of the other way around.

"If the line gives (Scarminach) time to make throws then he won't be running around for his life," Charlie Hall said. "But, we'll have some running plays by design because he's probably as good a running back as we have in the program."

As for his passing ability, Scarminach has a nice touch and has shown steady improvement in other areas since Ashland's 20-0 loss to the Japan All-Stars in the Pacific Rim Bowl, July 26.

"He's gotten more accurate," Charlie Hall said, following a morning scrimmage last Thursday in which Scarminach routinely hit his receivers in stride. "The more he plays the more accurate he gets, the more he plays the quicker he makes decisions, and those are the things he needs to work on. He'll need another game or two to get more seasoned at that position. I expect him to make good plays and I expect some mistakes, and we'll go from there."

If he does evolve into more of a pocket passer, Scarminach will have plenty of options to throw to, including big targets like Mason Costantino (6-2, 185) and Luke Stone (6-2, 170), and slot receivers Oliver Krant and Nick Hall.

Of course, the Grizzlies' problem last season wasn't moving the ball. In order for Ashland to accomplish its goal of making the playoffs, it will probably have to shore up a defense that surrendered yards in healthy chunks in 2008. The good news is that the Grizzlies have seven starters returning. The bad news: those starters were part of a unit that allowed an average of 196 rushing yards and 25.5 points, hardly acceptable numbers for a team with playoff aspirations.

In an effort to turn that tide, the Grizzly coaching staff has decided to move Shahin back to the defensive line, where the 5-10, 185-pound wrecking ball shined as a sophomore before being plugged in at linebacker last season.

"That (moving Shahin to linebacker) kind of backfired I thought," Charlie Hall said. "At times it looked good but I think we're going to look at him back at the defensive line because he's such a problem against those slower guys."

Joining Shahin, who will play tackle, on the line will be tackle Christian Ostmo and ends Jordan Resch and Alec Ralston. Jackson Volz will anchor the linebacker corps that will also include senior Mack Gargus, a returning starter, and junior David Skinner.

The secondary will include returning starters Nick Hall at corner and Scarminach at safety, although Charlie Hall will try to rest Scarminach on defense as much as possible.

As is often the case with Ashland football teams, the Grizzlies will not have the muscle to overpower opponents at the line of scrimmage. But that's OK, says Charlie Hall, so long as every player knows his assignment, sticks to the fundamentals when it comes to tackling and swarms to the ball.

"We're just going to have to be like a bunch of bees flying around," he said. "The strength of our defense won't necessarily be our physical size, it will be our quickness and our ability to stunt and do things to cause confusion with blocking schemes.

"We've got to take some chances."

Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 482-3456, ext. 224, or e-mail jzavala@dailytidings.com