MEDFORD — Tom Harrison understood the importance of first impressions. So when the first-year Ashland High hockey coach met with his players prior to the start of the season, he wanted to leave no ambiguity as to what his goals and expectations were.
"We were still in possession of the league championship trophy," Harrison recalled this week. "We brought that into our first meeting and put it on the table and had that sitting next to me to start my introduction."
"I basically said we shouldn't expect anything less than having a second one of these at the end of the season. I think that's a realistic goal for our team."
Four games into the new campaign, the Grizzlies have done nothing to dampen the hopes that not only can they can become just the second team in the history of the Southern Oregon League to repeat as champions (Ashland also did the trick in 2004-2005), but of a possible undefeated season as well.
The Grizzlies (4-0-0) moved into sole possession of first place in the six-team league with a dominating 9-2 victory over North Medford on Wednesday night at The RRRink. The Grizzlies, who capped a dominating playoff run with a victory over South Medford in the league championship game last year, have outscored their opponents 33-14 this season.
"Ashland's always seemed like the team to beat," said senior defenseman and alternate captain Josh McLaughlin. "Before last year, it seems like we kind of underachieved. After last year, everybody saw what we could do, especially in the playoffs.
"So I definitely think we're the team to beat right now. Everybody wants to get a shot at us."
While Harrison, whose previous coaching experience was with bantams, has taken the reigns from Chris Bonelli, 10 of the players who propelled the Grizzlies to a dominant playoff run last winter are back.
Chief among them is returning SOL Player of the Year Casey Skolnik. The 6-foot-3 senior center who scored 30 goals and had 65 points last winter is off to an even better start with 13 goals and 11 assists in just four games.
"He's a bit of a man amongst boys at times out there," Harrison said. "He's blessed with a significant amount of size. But he also has remarkable skills in his hands. He skates nicely, he's able to open up the ice for himself and he's got a quick and accurate release of a shot."
Skolnik, who is equally dangerous in open ice and working in traffic, has scored at least twice in every game thus far, but is just as content with setting up his teammates.
"I can see the ice really well," he said. "Even if I'm looking down at the goal, I know I'll have a trailer coming in to drop it back to."
"Obviously, I've heard (opposing) coaches pointing me out on the ice. But if they double and triple-team me, I'll find other people. I know we have other play-makers on the team, too."
Skolnik showed off his passing skills with a season-high four assists in the win over North Medford.
Skolnik's individual brilliance can easily overshadow a core of talented players.
Sophomore forwards Sam Taylor and Trevor Perry have four goals apiece, while freshman Keegan Healy leads an offensive-minded defense corps with five tallies, four of them coming against the Black Tornado on Wednesday.
"We've got a very nice defense and I think our defense is going to get even stronger as the season goes along and those partners get more comfortable with each other," Harrison said. "We get a lot of offense from our defense."
McLaughlin, a returning first-team all-league performer who is second to Skolnik on the team in scoring with seven points (2 G, 5A) this season starts on the blue line with Kai White. Healy and Mathias Dean form an equally capable second tandem.
Junior Gabe Dean has been a pleasant surprise in goal, replacing the graduated Kyle Smelcer. Dean has allowed 10 goals in four games for a 2.5 GAA.
"Gabe's really stepping up to the challenge," Harrison said. "What I ask of Gabe is that he makes the saves he should make. That comes from positioning, being in the game and being able to see the puck."
Like the other teams in the league, the Grizzlies get just one hour of practice ice time per week at The RRRink. But Harrison has supplemented that with a rigorous off-ice conditioning program.
"We've done a lot more off-ice work with coach Harrison," McLaughlin said. "We've been outplaying all of our opponents in the third period."
As scary as it might seem to the rest of the league, the Grizzlies could get even better with the potential return of first-team all league forward Lewis Sebrell. Sebrell, who was second in the SOL with 42 points last season, has been hampered by nagging injuries suffered during football season. Harrison is optimistic Sebrell could return following the holiday break.
Given the wealth of talent and experience, it seems an undefeated season isn't out of the realm of possibility.
"It would be nice to win all of your games," Skolnik said "We've just got to keep getting better and, hopefully, at the end of the year, we'll be on top."