As much as the Ashland High football team endured a tough luck, painful ousting from the playoffs last Fall, the Grizzly boys' cross country team may have had it even worse.
By now everyone knows the story of the coin flip that made the AHS gridders the odd-team out in the Southern Sky Conference, but the Grizzly runners failed to crack the top-two and earn a postseason bid as well — and just so happened to sit behind the No.'s 1 and 2 teams in the state.
"We have high expectations," head coach Bob Julian Jr. said, "because we felt like last year we could've had the third-best team in the state."
Now they'll get their chance to prove it, as the Grizzly boys enter today's SSC pre-district meet at Klamath Falls ranked third in class 5A, and the girls sixth.
While it will act only as a dry run for the district race later this fall, Ashland will get a chance to see how it stacks up against its SSC competition, including Crater, which is ranked ahead of the Grizzlies in both polls and No. 1 in the boys.
"It's always fun when we race Crater, no matter what the circumstances are," Julian said. "That's a great program and it's become a nice little rivalry."
The boys team is depending on a comeback year from one of its seniors to spark a change in the rivalry and the rankings this year.
Wilder Schaaf, who had a disappointing 2008 following an impressive sophomore season, will need to bounce back as the Grizzlies expect him to be at the forefront as their top runner.
"It's kind of unexplainable what happened to him last year," said Julian. "My best guess is that he hit some growing pains. He's started to grow into his body though, but it's still a process."
Schaaf's legs actually started to catch up with his expectations in the Spring, when the motivated runner captured the 1,500-meter and 3,000-meter titles at the Class 5A track and field state championships. A Division I prospect according to Julian, he did that after failing to even qualify individually for the state championships during cross country season.
Paul Schwarzer, another senior, picked up the slack last year as Ashland No. 2 runner behind graduated Ryland Karlovich, who led the Grizzlies with a fifth-place finish at state.
Schwarzer will assume the same position this year behind Schaaf, and is coming off a 27th-place finish last year with a time of 16 minutes, 56 seconds at state.
The Grizzly girls claimed the fifth spot at the state meet in 2008, but lost their only top-20 finisher in Aria Hemphill.
Returning as the clear-cut leader is Camelia Mayfield, who ran a 20:17 to fill the 32nd slot at the state meet and finished ninth at the Yreka Invitational last weekend in Ashland's opener.
After that, though, it gets a little blurry.
"Camelia's definitely at the top of the group, but after that I'd say there are about five girls who could finish right behind her," Julian said.
While Mayfield finished ahead of every other Ashland runner, Mia O'Dougherty, Alex Kiesling and Dana Greenblatt all hit the finish line within 10 seconds of each other, placing in the 11-through-13 slots as the Grizzlies took the Invitational. Marshall Miller and Hannah Ewing came in under a minute later.
As the Ashland girls finished the race ahead of South Medford (ranked third in the 6A poll), the boys claimed second behind Schaaf's fourth-place time of 18:03.5.
"Both of these teams are really driven right now, and both have a lot to prove," Julian said. "They're going to be really disappointed if they don't get a trophy at state, and the challenge for them is how far they can get.
"At the same time I think we can get a lot better too. We'll have some fun with it."