For those who thought the season was filled with intrigue, well, welcome to the offseason.

The Ashland High football season started with suspensions, included a bout with swine flu, peaked with a last-second playoff win, and ended with a 75-0 shellacking at the hands of a back-to-back state champion.

"It was a challenging year for us, because there were some real valleys in there," Grizzlies coach Charlie Hall said. "But the kids never quit and founds some ways to be successful with their backs against the wall, and I think that's how we'll remember the season."

But for those who thought the season was filled with intrigue, well, welcome to the offseason.

After losing only nine seniors from his 2009 squad that finished 5-7 overall and third in the conference, Hall has plenty of reasons to look forward to next year's squad.

Junior quarterback Jake Scarminach will return after rushing for nine touchdowns and throwing for 10, and will look to improve on his 13-interception total and the offense's 30 turnovers overall.

Leading tackler Clint Murphy will be gone, but his brother, T.J., will return with a second-best 44.5 tackles under his belt on the year, while Lee Dodds, who led the team with a pair of interceptions, will also figure to provide senior leadership.

But here's the catch for the team that, with four comeback wins on the year, was barely surviving against schools of a similar size: The competition is about to get a little bit stiffer — or, at least bigger.

Since its request to play down in a Class 4A conference was denied, Ashland will compete in a 5A/6A Southern Oregon hybrid league in accordance with a format that was recently approved by the OSAA Executive Board.

The reclassification, which takes place every four years, landed Ashland in the 5A's five-team Southern Sky Conference in 2006 following the state's expansion from four to six classification levels.

During the 2010-14 time block, though, the approved realignment places the Grizzlies in Southern League, in which they will still be considered a 5A school, but alongside only one other 5A school in the conference — Eagle Point.

The circuit's 6A schools will include Crater, Grants Pass, North Medford, Roseburg and South Medford, reuniting each school that made up the old Southern Oregon Conference except Klamath Union.

Ashland's enrollment is less than any of the aforementioned schools; Grants Pass, Roseburg and South Medford each currently have at least 700 more students, according to OSAA.org.

But while the Grizzlies will compete in the 5A/6A loop during regular season play, their postseason plans won't include any of the Southern League's schools but Eagle Point — they'll just depend on them.

As of a Nov. 23 meeting, the OSAA's Championship has proposed that Ashland will compete with four other schools — Bend, Eagle Point, Mountain View and Summit — for two automatic bids to the 5A State Championships, while nine other at-large bids will be dispersed amongst the state.

Meanwhile, the three Bend schools in that mix will compete in a 4A/5A/6A hybrid league during the regular season with Redmond (6A) and Crook County (4A).

The bids, though, according to the proposal, will be based on power rankings since most of the teams competing for the playoff spots will never actually meet on the field.

Ideally, according to the committee, the power rankings will factor in cross-classification contests, number of games played, games played against out-of-state opponents and score differential, although no specific formula has been approved yet.

The committee has until May 2010 until it final recommendation to the OSAA Executive Board must be made.

"No matter what happens, we're going to be in for some different challenges within our conference," Hall said. "There's going to be very minimal playoff opportunities, and there's obviously some really strong teams that we're going to be expected to compete with in order to get to the postseason."

Josh McDermott is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Contact him at mcdermott.josh@ymail.com.