Grizzlies loaded with talent, experience; tough schedule awaits

The Ashland High girls soccer team won't have to wait until the playoffs to find out how it stacks up against top flight competition this season. The Grizzlies' preseason schedule includes three straight games against 6A schools followed by back-to-back road games against 5A powers Summit and Mountain View.

Of course, when you're equipped with eight returning all-conference players, including the Southern Sky Conference player of the year, your prowess probably shouldn't be in question.

Ashland showed off that talent, albeit in flashes, during Tuesday's season opener against North Medford, out-shooting the visiting Black Tornado 11-3 on goal. But the Grizzlies couldn't finish — a problem that cost Ashland last season, as well — and the Black Tornado escaped with a 1-0 nonconference victory.

Considering the early-season gauntlet, Ashland head coach Eric Wolff knows that losses could start to pile up by October even if the Grizzlies do play well, which is why he's taking the conservative approach when it comes to season goals.

"We're starting out with five really hard games against 6A schools and two of the top 5A schools over in Bend, so if you have a bad start you have to overcome that psychology, which can be really hard," he said. "So, I don't want to put any extra burden on them by saying I want to achieve this much by the end of the season. I just want to play the first five games and see how we do through those, and if we do well then everybody's expectations will rise naturally."

That process may already be in full swing after Tuesday's dominating first-half exhibition, which should have yielded a goal or two (or three) for the Grizzlies. Positive signs were everywhere: Ashland's superior ball control kept the ball in North Medford territory almost exclusively; the Grizzlies' offense generated several fantastic scoring opportunities; and defending Southern Sky Conference player of the year Chloe Deckwar looked better than ever, rocking a corner kick off the post and repeatedly beating defenders in one-on-one's.

"It's my senior year, I want to go as far as we possibly can and push ourselves to maximum," Deckwar said. "I think that we can do it. It would feel wonderful if we could achieve something together since we've played together for so long."

A quick glance at the roster illustrates that point. The Grizzlies are loaded with upperclassmen — 13 in all, including nine seniors, easily the most experienced collection in Wolff's eight-year tenure.

"A lot of seniors are coming back and we all know how we play with each other," senior midfielder Carolyn Thomas said. "And "¦ even our younger players know how to play with each other really well and they're really connecting with us during practice, so it looks like a good team that can challenge harder teams and maybe even take them."

Besides Deckwar, the Grizzlies return first-team all-SSC picks Annika Hearn, Riley Smith, Katelyn Walker and Kai Yearsly and second-team selections Heather Case, Raven Susu-Mago and Thomas. Walker, Hearn and sophomore keeper Rinchen Thomas anchor the defense, while Smith, Yearsly and Deckwar spearhead Ashland's attack.

While the Grizzlies have shown the ability to put pressure on opposing defenses, putting those opportunities away is another story. Wolff acknowledged as much before a practice last week after being asked who would be scoring most of the goals on this year's team.

"Good question, why don't you tell me?" He said. "I don't know and I don't think that we'll be relying on any one player. Any midfielder and any striker can score goals for me and we always have been like that. We've never relied on any one person."

Carolyn Thomas agreed, hinting that the Grizzlies may look to force the issue from the back.

"I really think it comes from the defense becoming part of the attack," she said. "And just coming up and us working together as a unit — when we're attacking, we're all attacking; when we're defending, we're all defending and just really working together as a team. That way, when we do get up in the goal, we get lots of opportunities."

If that strategy works, the Grizzlies could be in for a special season. They're certainly due. After years of struggling to even compete in the old Southern Oregon Conference, the Grizzlies have taken advantage of the reclassification to net three straight playoff berths. The first of those runs ended in the round of 16, but that was quickly followed by consecutive quarterfinal losses to Bend, which has won two of the past three 5A state titles.

This time, Wolff hopes the Grizzlies' veteran savvy pushes them over the top.

"Most of the seniors have been playing varsity since freshman year, the juniors have been playing since freshmen year," he said, "so I have tons of years of experience. I don't think there are very many teams in the state that match us in terms of years of varsity experience, so that part's obviously exciting."

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