Austin Chandler didn't need to look at it.

Austin Chandler didn't need to look at it. Lying on the turf at the Marist High School football field, a radiating blast of pain seized his right ankle and gave the Ashland High running back all the information he needed.

There was that sound, too — a hideous crunch, confirming the worst.

"It was an 18 sweep," Chandler recalls, going back to the play that cost him his sophomore season in both football and track. "I was running and some guy pinned me from my ankles, grabbed me, picked me up. I fell down and my ankle was on top of someone's helmet. Another guy came in, cracked it. I felt it instantly. I felt the bone just crack."

And then, a strange numbness. And then, silence.

"I was just in shock," he said. "I was more scared just by the popping noise."

It took trainers 20 minutes to cut through the two braces that were supposed to protect Chandler's ankle. At first, they thought he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament, a major injury in its own right. But X-rays the following day revealed that Chandler's ankle was broken in two places.

Only two weeks into his sophomore year of high school, Chandler was forced to deal with two hard truths:

1. His first varsity football season, a campaign full of promise, was finished, and "…

2. His track season was in serious jeopardy.

"It was pretty devastating," Chandler said.

Devastating, but not demoralizing, because Chandler has recovered from the injury to become an impact player again for the Grizzlies as a junior. Playing both running back and linebacker, Chandler enters Friday's homecoming game against Willamette (3-0) as Ashland's leading tackler.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Walter A. Phillips Field, where the Grizzlies (2-1) will attempt to hand the ninth-ranked Wolverines their first loss of the season.

Playing against one of the top running backs in the state, Willamette pinball Jordan Visarraga, Chandler's ability to bottle up the perimeter will be key.

"(Chandler) trained hard all summer and I'm just happy that he's able to contribute and do the things that he's been able to do," Ashland head coach Charlie Hall said.

It was a different story at this time last year. After the injury, one of the fastest athletes in the Rogue Valley was stuck in slo-mo, his right ankle in a cast for the next two months as his shattered bone healed itself. And when the cast finally came off, it was time to get to work.

That's when Chandler began to earn playing time for his junior year, although he had no idea it would be at a new position, on the other side of the ball. With the help of Ashland Physical Therapy, Chandler slowly but surely rehabbed his surgically repaired ankle. It was a tedious process, more time consuming than painful, that included two-hour sessions every day after school for three months.

Chandler attempted to put the ankle to the test during track season as a sprinter, but struggled to push out of the starting blocks. It didn't help that he also suffered a hamstring injury. As feared, it became a lost season, but Chandler remained positive.

When the team began preparing for the Pacific Rim Bowl in early July, Chandler was back at it, showing off the speed that made him a threat to go the distance on any given play as a sophomore. But the Ashland coaching staff had other plans. Chandler was thrown into the mix at linebacker, a position he wasn't so sure about at the time.

All that changed in the Pacific Rim Bowl. Playing against a Japanese all-star program that had owned Ashland in the previous five encounters, Chandler showed that he had a nose for the ball, helping the Grizzlies deliver a 26-0 thrashing.

The game film was an eye-opener for Hall, who knew then that he had found a key piece to what has since become a steady, at times suffocating defense.

"We really didn't know how much of a contribution he was going to make until we saw him play against Japan," Hall said, "and then we knew, 'Boy, this kid can make plays,' because he has a great feel for the ball, and he uses his speed very well and he's a good tackler."

Often, players attempting to return from a serious injury have mental hurdles to clear, especially in their first game back. But Chandler says that when that first whistle blew against Japan, any doubts he may have had disappeared.

"I wasn't thinking at all about my ankle," he said. "It just came to me. I wasn't worried or anything."

The Grizzlies, however, may be a little worried about the Wolverines and their potent spread option offense, which is averaging a Class 5A-best 54 points per game. Visarraga has done most of the damage, rushing for 378 yards in two Midwestern League games, including 225 on 26 carries in last week's 55-22 win over Eagle Point.

Visarraga is a shifty, explosive back and limiting him, says Hall, is the key for the Grizzlies.

"They go no-huddle and they do the read zone play, so the quarterback and the running back are deciding who's going to take (the ball)," Hall said. "But obviously they're going to try to get the ball to their stud. We've got to read it, we've got to be disciplined, we've got to have somebody who's going to take the running back and somebody to take the quarterback. So, we've got to do a good job being disciplined."

Discipline. After months of intense rehab and more months of catching up in the weight room, it's a word Chandler knows well. He's not afraid of it, either.

"It's awesome," he said, "playing football again."

Daily Tidings sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 and