A year after clinching its second Southern Sky Conference title in three years, the Ashland High girls soccer team has a lot of growing up to do.

A year after clinching its second Southern Sky Conference title in three years, the Ashland High girls soccer team has a lot of growing up to do.

The Grizzlies lost seven SSC all-stars to graduation, including player of the year Kai Yearsley, and will look to the next crop of seniors, plus a promising collection of underclassmen, to lead the charge into the Southern Oregon hybrid era.

"There's a lot of new players, so we don't know exactly where everybody fits into it," said senior Riley Smith, the team's lone returning first-team all-conference selection. "But I think as the season goes along we'll be really strong. That's what I see at least. A lot of potential."

Ashland will get its first opportunity to put that potential to the test today at Klamath Union. The nonconference match is scheduled to start at 1 p.m. at Conger Field in Klamath Falls.

After a solid four-year run in the SSC — Ashland won a pair of league titles and made the playoffs every year — the Grizzlies will now compete in the seven-team SOC hybrid, which consists of five Class 6A teams and two 5A's. As the league's only 5A programs, Ashland and Eagle Point will play twice during the regular season to determine which squad earns an automatic berth to the state playoffs round of 32.

As far as that goes, Ashland appears to be in great shape. The Grizzlies whipped Eagle Point by a combined score of 8-0 last season and 13-3 in 2007. The rest of Ashland's schedule, however, is as tough as it gets.

North and South Medford, Grants Pass, Roseburg — it's one big school after another, just like the old days, when Ashland struggled to make games competitive, let alone win. Still, the Grizzlies are choosing instead to consider the bright side, which can be summed up in seven words: better competition equals greater rate of improvement.

"Last year we had some easy games, and then once we got to the playoffs it seemed like such a big step up and I think that's one reason why we lost in the (second) round," Ashland head coach Eric Wolff said.

Indeed, in '09 Ashland dominated its last five regular season games by a combined score of 23-4, only to drop its playoff opener to Bend, 3-1. A similar scenario is unlikely this season, as games against Roseburg, Grants Pass and Crater speckle the bottom half of Ashland's schedule.

That's fine by senior defender Annika Hearn, who likes the talent moving up from Ashland's junior varsity program and is looking forward to the challenge of playing against 6A schools.

"It is an opportunity for us to put our best foot forward," said Hearn, a second-team all-SSC pick last season. "At the moment we're thought of as the underdog because we have lost so many players and we are in a higher league, but I think that that challenge will give us the opportunity to work past what is expected of us. We have that opportunity to be pushed to a level that will make our whole team stronger."

Smith, who has been invited to try to make the roster at the University of Oregon next year, and Hearn represent half of Ashland's returning all-leaguers. Also earning all-conference recognition last season were honorable mention juniors Arianna Hunter and goalkeeper Rinchen Thomas, who started as a freshman.

The Grizzlies will also see the return of former freshman phenom Taylor Zehren, who's back for her junior year after scoring five goals in one game as a freshman and moving to Arizona as a sophomore.

Wolff isn't sure where all the pieces will fit this season, but wherever they play he expects the six returning seniors to play crucial roles.

"You usually rely on your seniors," he said. "Last year's juniors now have to take the leadership role and push the team when things get hard."

That means Smith, Hearn and Kyska McSky will be asked to take on that responsibility, as will fellow seniors Malia Charter, Elizabeth Gambee and Katelyn Walker.

Smith is Ashland's most skilled player, but that doesn't necessarily mean she'll spend most of her time attacking opposing defenses. Zehren showed two years ago how dangerous she is in front of the net, but her place in Ashland's scheme also may change depending on the opponent.

"Right now for me it's really open," Wolff said of his lineup.

Ashland won't have long to shape up for its first big match against Eagle Point. The Grizzlies and Eagles face off for the first time Tuesday in Ashland.