Ashland looks for fast start in playoff opener vs. Wilsonville

Whether or now they belong now is beside the point.

For the Ashland High football team, which was left out of last year's playoffs with a 3-1 league record that gave them a share of the Southern Sky Conference championship, all that matters is that they're in.

The rest, of course, they'll have to prove. And there's still plenty of that left to do.

After a one-year hiatus from postseason action, the Grizzlies will get the chance to redeem a 4-6 season when they host the Northwest Oregon Conference's fourth seed, Wilsonville, 7 p.m. Friday at Walter A. Phillips Field.

The matchup pits two struggling teams against each other, Ashland being defeated last week but doing the bare minimum to make it to this point, and Wilsonville entering with a 3-6 record after losing its last three games by a combined 82 points.

Two completely different styles of play will be on display. The Wildcats are a grind-it-out type of team from one of the most physical conferences in the state, while the Grizzlies spread it out and hope for big plays.

"They're a lot like us, as far as the situation they're in," Ashland coach Charlie Hall said. "But they come from an extremely tough conference and are battle-tested against some really good opponents. This is a team we have to respect, because they'll be ready to go."

Respecting their opponent aside, the Jekyll and Hyde act that's plagued their offense will be the biggest determinant of whether the Grizzlies can give themselves a fighting chance.

It was on display again last week. Ashland fell behind early after three first-half turnovers and had to use the same come-from-behind routine that it had to show in every SSC contest this year.

"The key for us has been taking care of the football all year," Hall said. "It's obviously been a big issue lately, because we've put the defense in some really tough situations after turnovers.

"In a big game like this, you absolutely can't afford to give the other team extra chances."

The Grizzlies, though, have made a habit of doing just that, along with putting themselves in early holes. They were able to escape with comeback wins over Klamath Union and Mazama, but after cutting a 16-point deficit to two in the fourth quarter at Eagle Point, they weren't as lucky.

"It's just weird," senior receiver and defensive back Mason Costantino said. "It's nothing we can put our finger on, but we're just one of those teams that, once we get down, we say, 'Uh oh, we better get going now.'

"Hopefully that's not what it comes down to this week," he added. "We'd like to play with a lead at some point."

Luckily for Ashland, they're playing a team that has experience giving their opponents the lead. All but one of Wilsonville's six losses have been by more than 28 points.

Hall says to chalk that up to their difficult schedule, cautioning that the Wildcats will likely try to establish a shove-it-down-your-throat type offense against the smaller Grizzlies much like Eagle Point did and Klamath Union failed to do.

The Grizzlies are also ready for a heavy dosage of play-action so that Wilsonville can utilize arguably their biggest threat. While Wildcat quarterback Brennen Wolvert averages well under 20 pass attempts per game, receiver Michael Mackelvie leads the team with six touchdowns and has averaged 70 receiving yards per game.

"We think they'll try to establish the run because that's just who they are," Hall said, "but we have to stay disciplined because even though they're not going to spread it out like us, their best play-maker is still a receiver."

Linebacker Clinton Murphy has been Ashland's most consistent player on the defensive side of the ball over the past few weeks, posting 29 tackles with a sack and an interception in the SSC.

Junior quarterback Jake Scarminach will head Ashland's offensive attack, and although he has led the Grizzlies in rushing yards all year, he's struggled throwing the ball, completing 31 of his 70 attempts in league play.

Costantino, who averaged 103 reception yards with a pair of touchdowns in three SSC games, has been Scarminach's first option and figures to be a big part of the offensive game plan.

Although he couldn't guarantee a fast start, of course, he explained Wednesday that a playoff game in front of the Ashland fans isn't something that will be tough to get excited for.

"I'm sure Wilsonville is looking at us and thinking this is a pretty good chance for them to move on," he said, "but we feel like we have something to prove to the whole state. This is a good team, and I've thought that all along, but this is when we have to show it."

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