The Ashland Grizzlies checked nearly every box on their bucket list last season while supplanting Marist to claim the Midwestern League championship and advancing all the way to the Class 5A state semifinals.
Now, after finally breaking through against their league rivals, the Grizzlies have a different sort of psychological challenge facing them this time around.
“This team brings a lot of confidence in from a year ago, so can we handle that?” said Ashland head coach Charlie Hall, who’s embarking on his 10th season at the helm. “You’ve always got to rise above adversity; you’ve always got to challenge yourselves. Now, we’re dealing with success. Can kids 15, 16, 17 years old deal with success and know that they still gotta work hard, they still gotta earn everything that they get?”
They’ve already swatted away the complacency bug with what Hall called a standout offseason in the weight room and on the practice field. Now comes the regular season, and Hall believes that the Grizzlies have the talent to make another deep playoff run.
A quick glance at the roster reveals the source of Hall’s optimism. Ashland returns seven starters on both sides of the ball, including nine MWL all-conference honorees and four all-state picks: safety Max Montgomery, tight end Parker Layton, wide receiver Shashi Penn and punter Walker Shibley-Styer.
Montgomery, Layton and Penn star on an offense that also includes returning MWL honorable mention running backs Ryne Robitz and Mason Dow. The offensive line is small but athletic — the biggest of the bunch is junior left guard Collin McGuire, who’s 6-foot-1 and weighs in at 265. Center Bryson Ramirez, at 6-foot, 190 pounds, represents Ashland's norm.
“I’m thinking I can use my athleticism and my brains to help me out, make up for my lack of size,” Ramirez said.
Running the offense will be junior Kyle Weinberg, a dual-threat signal-caller who will be taking over for first-team all-state QB Danial White. Weinberg doesn't have the experience of his predecessor, nor the arm strength, but has proven to be an effective leader while starting for Ashland’s freshmen and junior varsity teams over the previous two years.
“(Weinberg) can throw the ball well, he’s good at reading and I think that’s good in the whole scheme of the game,” said Robitz, who rushed for 594 yards and eight touchdowns last season. “And he can run as well. He’s athletic.”
Not that Weinberg will be asked to carry the ball much this season. With the team short on depth at QB, Weinberg most likely will be asked to rely on the weapons he has at his disposal. The good news is he has plenty of options. Ashland returns three of its top four receivers in terms of catches and two of its top three running backs in terms of rushing yards.
Penn, the quickest of the bunch, led the Grizzlies with 32 catches for 469 yards and nine touchdowns last season, while the big, fast Layton (6-3, 210) added 29 catches for 291 yards and four TDs.
“If (Weinberg) can give us the ball, I think we’re going to have a pretty good year on offense,” Layton said.
The Grizzlies, who were voted No. 1 in the MWL preseason coaches’ poll, are even more excited about their defense, which dominated the red and white scrimmage last Saturday.
Layton leads that group as well, from the linebacker position. On the line, Collin McGuire and Ivan Tagui, a returning first-team all-league pick, will plug up the middle while Seth Cowan and Michael Pruitt anchor the ends. Pruitt, possibly the fastest player on a defense loaded in that category, showed off his playmaking ability during Ashland’s red and white game.
“Michael has amazing speed,” Hall said, “and that can work for him and against him. But he’s a talent.”
Flanking Layton at linebacker will be Chance Swenson and Karter Cox. The secondary, says Hall, is the deepest he’s had since taking over the Grizzlies in 2005. Montgomery, a first-team all-state pick, is the star of the group, but he’s got plenty of support in fellow safety Dow and cornerbacks Shibley-Styer and Theo Whitcomb.
The corners can play man-to-man against just about anybody, which will give the Grizzlies freedom to bring more pressure. And the secondary’s versatility, says Hall, will be a tremendous asset.
“If we need to get more guys into the box we can roll coverage down and either one of our safeties can play more of an outside linebacker position,” he said. “They’re all physical guys.”
That’s why Hall believes that special teams could also prove to be a game-changer for Ashland. Not only do the Grizzlies have an electric return man in Penn, who averaged 20.2 yards per kick return and 19.7 yards per punt return last season, but they’re also equipped with an overall better collection of athletes than they had last season, when the Grizzlies fell to Sherwood in the state semis.
They also have Shibley-Styer, who during the scrimmage launched a 65-yard punt that was downed on the 1-yard line.
“I think we’re more athletic, quicker, more explosive,” Hall said. “On paper we look like we can be very similar to a year ago. It’s just a matter of can we be smart. We didn’t make a lot of mistakes last year.”
Ashland is expected to challenge for another conference title and make another playoff push. Only time will tell if the Grizzlies can overcome the loss of White and two-time all-MWL defensive player of the year Mason Montgomery, but Ashland may benefit from moves up to 6A by former 5A powerhouses Sherwood and West Albany.
A change in the OSAA’s playoff format should crank up the intensity during league games this season. Only the top three teams in the final MWL standings will advance to the 5A state playoffs this year, as the power rankings will only be used to determine the final at-large qualifier.
Ashland will have four non-league games to prepare for its conference opener, which is Oct. 3 at Churchill. After that, the Grizzlies have a series of intriguing matchups, including an Oct. 3 home game against Crater, back from 6A, an Oct. 17 home game against Springfield, ranked No. 2 in the MWL poll, and an Oct. 24 road tilt at Marist.
“I’m feeling pretty confident,” Ramirez said. “We’ve got a lot of athletes and everyone on our team and, I know this for a fact, we all have a passion.
“We have the same goal, and we all know what that goal is — a state championship.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org.