Grizzlies hope speed kills

One look at the Ashland Grizzlies' starting lineup and it's easy to see why head coach Emily Hesse is designing game plans around her team's athleticism.

Outside of point guard Taylor Zehren, every player in the Ashland girls' basketball team's starting five is between 5-foot-10 and 6-feet tall — and the one 6-footer is wing Allison Shulenberger.

So sheer power will not be an asset this season. But that's OK, says Hesse, because the Grizzlies, who are off to a 3-0 start heading into tonight's nonconference home game against Henley, can make up for by simply covering more ground.

"We're using it to our advantage, actually," said Heese, who was known as Emily Brookins before getting married over the summer. "We have speed, so we're trying to utilize that as much as possible. We don't have the bigness. We don't have that big post that's down there that's dominating all the time, so we're using our speed and our agility the most."

That strategy has worked well so far. Ashland is undefeated with an average winning margin of 21 points (46-25), though two of those wins came against Class 4A teams and the other was against 3A Cascade Christian.

Shulenberger is Ashland's No. 1 scoring option. The versatile senior is averaging 14.3 points, including a 21-point outing against North Valley.

The other starters are Zehren (a senior), senior wing Shelby Minor, and senior forwards Sarah Kasiah and Sarah Pavlich. All can deliver on offense, but are taking turns doing so thus far. Zehren scored 10 against Cascade, Pavlich dropped 14 on North Valley and Minor scored eight against North Valley and seven against Hidden Valley.

"I think we have everything we need to be a successful team, but we just have to know how to incorporate everyone together," said Kasiah, whose younger sister, sophomore Sadie Kasiah, is also on the team. "That's going to be our goal throughout the season I think, just knowing everyone's strengths and weaknesses and knowing how to utilize them throughout the game."

Heese says the Grizzlies will continue to run mostly a motion offense. On defense, they'll adjust based on the opponent.

"We'll work with what we have," Heese said.

And what they have, added Shulenberger, is the ability to crank up the aggressiveness.

"I think we're going to be fastbreaking and pressing, and picking it up," she said. "I love playing that kind of game. I love the fastbreak because there's so much more adrenaline and it's so much more exciting."

The Grizzlies could use some of that adrenaline in their half-court sets as well. While they in general executed well last season, they were all little too unselfish for Heese's liking. Open shots were passed up, and clear dribbling lanes to the basket were avoided. That has to change, the second-year coach said, or the Grizzlies will be susceptible to long scoring droughts.

"When you're open, shoot the ball," Heese said. "If you have the lane, drive the lane. If you have to pass, pass. We've improved from the beginning until now, but last year we struggled with putting the ball up and we've stressed that, stressed that, stressed that. And it's still coming."

The Grizzlies have plenty of time to figure that out. As a member of the two-team 5A Southern Oregon Hybrid, Ashland need only win its season series against Eagle Point to qualify for the 32-team play-in round. That three-game series doesn't begin until the Grizzlies and Eagles hook up Jan. 31 at Eagle Point — the next two games, including the Feb. 21 regular-season finale, will be played at Mountain Avenue Gym.

The Grizzlies swept Eagle Point to claim SOH honors last season, but wound up 9-14 overall and lost their play-in game at home to Marist.

Heese isn't making any predictions just yet, but believes that the talent is in place for Ashland to make some noise in the postseason.

"I have full confidence that my girls can go as far as they want to push themselves," she said, "and I think that can be far."

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