Ashland drops varsity hockey team

Short on both players and skill, the Ashland High ice hockey program will not suit up a varsity team again this season.

The Grizzlies, who won their fourth Southern League championship in six seasons last year, are instead putting together a junior varsity team that will compete with other southern Oregon squads in a developmental league.

The decision was made after the Grizzlies lost their first two games of the season to Crater and South Medford by lopsided margins. Ashland head coach Tom Harrison said he thought the move was the right one all along and that the first two games only served as more proof.

"It was not a safe and competitive environment for our players," Harrison said, noting that Ashland lost most of its top players from last year's championship squad to graduation, then lost two more players prior to the season to other hockey commitments. "There was such a significant disparity in skill levels. In comparison, in football you don't have freshmen playing varsity football because it's not appropriate, because you greatly increase the risk of injury. We should support the skaters in whatever level they are truly competing at and not expose them to bad situations."

A few players on Ashland's roster can hold their own just fine, however. Ashland's top three players have been added to the North Medford varsity roster and are already making an impact — junior Sam Taylor had a goal and an assist and junior Ian White also scored in North's 7-6 loss to South Medford on Saturday. Ashland freshman Kiota Coles is also playing for North.

Harrison is hoping that Ashland can return to varsity competition next season, but said such a move will only be made if the Grizzlies are able to safely compete with varsity-caliber players.

That wasn't a problem in previous years. Ashland's co-ed hockey team emerged as a southern Oregon dynasty throughout the 2000's, claiming the last two league titles behind a highly-skilled roster that few local teams could keep up with. Last year, led by seniors Casey Skolnik and Josh McLaughlin, the Grizzlies outscored their four playoff opponents 24-6 to cap a 17-1-1 season.

Ashland can reach those heights again, said Harrison, but it will take practice and patience.

"Creating a JV program will give us an opportunity to teach," he said, "and hopefully, later, that will become a contributing factor."

The loss of Ashland's varsity program drops the number of teams that compete in the Southern Oregon League from five to four, with Klamath Union playing games against SOL teams but not counted as a league member.

For the first time ever, the SOL will come together with teams from the northern half of the state at the end of the season for a state tournament, with the top two teams from each league squaring off in a four-team championship bracket.

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