The MVP graduated off the boys team, and the girls team was severely shorthanded, scrambling to fill out a playable roster only weeks before the season was scheduled to begin.

The MVP graduated off the boys team, and the girls team was severely shorthanded, scrambling to fill out a playable roster only weeks before the season was scheduled to begin.

The natural reaction to this might be panic, but Ashland High water polo coach Christi Gilmore kept the faith, possibly a byproduct of last year's phenomenal postseason run which included first-ever state championships for both squads.

Now, the Grizzlies are exactly where Gilmore hoped they would be, preparing for next week's final four and a shot at a double repeat in Tualatin.

"I've been coaching the six strongest boys for four years, so I knew that they would be here," Gilmore said. "The girls — as of Aug. 23 I had three players, so to even get this far has put a huge smile on my face for them. It's a huge accomplishment for a few girls who came out of the woodwork to try a new sport and to get this far — it's successful no matter where we place."

The Ashland boys and girls will head to the final site with a different set of expectations.

The boys are the odds-on favorite to capture their second straight state title after rolling through an undefeated Southern Conference season and dominating their substate game against Woodburn, 27-11, on Saturday. They're led by league MVP Lucas Opgenorth, who scored five goals in the win over Woodburn, and fellow first-team all-conference selection Wynn Michael, who scored seven goals. Other key players include Forrest Kollar, another first-team selection, Adam Good and goalie Willis Plummer.

The Grizz boys were the surprise team of 2008, steamrolling through the postseason and dominating the state championship game behind the standout play of MVP Robin Haas. With the high-scoring Haas gone, the Grizzlies have been forced to diversify their offense. The result has been a more balanced attack that's maximized Ashland's deep roster.

"I feel more confident than I did last year, and I think we're actually better than we were last year," Opgenorth said. "I think we definitely have the potential after watching these teams and seeing how far we've come as a team this year. I feel pretty good about our chances."

"These teams" are Parkrose, West Albany and Summit, the other teams that qualified for the state semifinals. The Grizzlies will face Summit in the semis on Nov. 13. The winner of that game will face the winner of the Parkrose-West Albany game the following day for the state championship. The third-place game will also be played Saturday, but the Grizzlies are confident that they'll avoid that one.

"We're just going to go and, just like we've been doing all season, play the hardest game we can and see how it turns out," Michael said. "I think we have a really good chance because we've been watching Summit and West Albany . . . and I'd say we're easily on par with them."

In contrast, the Ashland girls have surprised themselves and their coach by making it back to the state semifinals a year after dominating the rest of the state behind all-stars Natalie Del Carlo and Allison Gida. Del Carlo graduated and Gida decided not to play this season, prompting Gilmore to consider this a rebuilding year for the Grizzlies.

Then the season started, and the Grizzlies quickly went from decent, to good to championship contender in a matter of weeks.

Led by goalie Carlee Santee, Smith Freeman and Kalli Walker, Ashland beat the odds by grinding out its own undefeated Southern Conference run and now looks to continue its surprising ascent on the biggest stage.

The Grizz girls will face Bend in the semis Nov. 13 and either West Albany or Parkrose the following day.

"Going into it, I feel like we have a good chance if we work hard at practice this week and next week, but it takes the whole team," Walker said. "I know that I want it and I know that a few people really want it, but as a team I think we all need to work really hard together to get to that final position of winning in the end."

Freeman agrees.

"I'm optimistic, but I'm not, 'Oh, we're going to win,'" she said. "But I think we have a good chance. Our team has come a long way and we've been doing really well."