Ashland offensive line leads way into 5A play-in game

Battles wage in the game of football. The field plays theatre to madness and struggle. Coaches send orders to cannon-armed, fleet-footed quarterbacks. Lightning quick running backs and acrobatic receivers threaten to strike with viper precision at slip of an ankle. But they would all be rendered useless without the biggest, nastiest and scariest brutes of all — offensive linemen.

Dominating the line of scrimmage is a trait shared by all successful football teams. The ability to protect a quarterback, open up running lanes and, in turn, deny the opposition the same spells the difference between a punt and a touchdown, first down or fourth down and ultimately success and failure.

A good brute is an oddity to behold. He plays with a mean streak, has a desire to crush his opponent mercilessly and can often refuse to wash a jersey with intent both superstitious and malodorous. But, he is incredibly intelligent. A lineman knows the protection for every play, how the defense will attack that and how to adjust accordingly.

For the white-hot Ashland Grizzlies (6-2) things are no different; and, the big guys are getting nastier. After stumbling out of the gates 0-2 the Grizzlies have ripped off six consecutive victories and host a Class 5A play-in game Friday night against South Albany (2-6). Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Walter A. Phillips Field.

Leading the charge are the brutes.

"The offensive line is key to any success on offense," Ashland head coach Charlie Hall said. "It's a tough job, a thankless job. It requires a lot of physical toughness and a lot of intelligence. There is a lot to remember in terms of who to block: protection, snap count and recognition "… not only team to team but down to down."

The main reason for the success on the line has been team attitude. An unrelenting desire to attack opponents coupled with an impossible-to-shake faith in each other is forging this group into sledgehammer that eventually cracks opposing defenses.

"We've been playing together since eighth grade," said Christian Ostmo, a two-way lineman and the only Grizzly to earn first-team all-league on both offense and defense. "We have that blood, sweat and tears together. All that stuff, we've been through it together."

These Grizzlies are proving that size and brute strength aren't everything when it comes to blocking. Sure there's some size (massive left tackle Sam Cowan is 6-foot-5 and 285 pounds). But there's also speed and smarts: two-way all-star Ostmo, who stands a mighty 5-9 and weighs 205 pounds soaking wet.

Although the group is an odd assortment of sizes and strengths, they are unified in the way they attack opposing offenses. Faced off against bigger schools most of the year, these line mates have forged a bunker mentality: us against them.

"There's only 11 guys on the field against us," senior Kevin Schilling said. "If we are relentless and outworking those 11 we are going to win."

Senior Shea Henthorn pointed out Ashland has never been known for its size. They are typical, middle-sized kids with lots of fight. If people aren't ready they will be surprised.

"People can look at us and go, 'Oh, they are small,'" Henthorn said. "But they have no clue until they actually play us. There is technique and heart, how bad do they want it?"

It is hard to tell who may want it more than these Grizzlies. According to Ostmo, winning a state championship has been in the works since middle school. Five years later the Grizzlies are approaching the final leg of what could be a dream come true.

"I'm going to fight like my life is on the line," Ostmo said. "This is something I've seriously wanted for a very long time."

It appears that the Grizzlies are headed in the right direction. Six consecutive victories have put Ashland into the second round of play-in games, and the offense is rolling in tip-top shape at the most important time of the year.

Although Ashland rode a balanced offensive attack most of the season — 1,495 rushing yards and 1,538 passing yards — it thrived on a grinding, explosive and sometimes cruel running game. The linemen seem to get better each game.

"Right now this group is playing very consistent," Hall said. "They are very tough and love to get after it. I always say you gotta have some toughness and the desire to wear down your opponent to play on the line."

The constant grind of smaller opponents throwing themselves around like pinballs with no regard for consequence allowed fleet-footed all-star Jake Scarminach to put on an offensive show all season. If the big guys can keep up the ugliness, there's no reason to believe things will slow down.

"Running the ball is not a passive activity," Hall said. "It's about hitting again and again and again "… playing through the whistle "… eventually getting the other guy worn down."

Which is exactly what Ashland is doing.

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