The preparations began with small fundraisers last summer and shifted into high gear with an auction that yielded $28,000 in April.
Now, after breaking out the pads for the first time prior to Thursday's practice, the Ashland High football team is counting down the days to Pacific Rim Bowl XI.
"We're starting to get butterflies in our stomachs, starting to feel it," Ashland senior running back and linebacker Issa Shahin said. "It's pretty exciting. We're going to another country and getting ready to play a game for our town, our whole country. It's a pretty big deal, and I think a lot of the (players) are pretty amped up for it."
The team — 47 players and seven coaches will make the trip — leaves Ashland on July 19 and leaves the country the next day bound for Osaka, Japan, where the game will be played July 26 at Expo Flash Field. Though the cultural exchange and the almost daily field trips are a major part of the trip, the Grizzlies will also be looking to snap Japan's four-game winning streak, which has tied the overall series at five wins apiece.
The last victory for Ashland was a home win in 1999. Since then, it's been all Japan, including a 28-21 victory in Ashland in 2007.
"It's a little frustrating, but you have to look at the bigger picture," said Shahin, who played a key role in that 2007 game. "We're playing all of Japan and we're just Ashland."
Indeed, the Japan All-Stars boast a 65-player senior dominated roster, a collection that every two years puts Ashland's depth chart to shame. And the players on the team have to earn the right to be there. More than 200 players from the Kansai area, which covers Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto, try out for the team and, according to Ashland head coach Charlie Hall, 70 percent of the players who make the final roster go on to play college football.
Ashland began practicing for the game on Monday but the coaches didn't allow full pads and full contact until Thursday.
"It's fun to start to hit again," junior lineman Jordan Wright said.
"It was good," Hall said of the first day of tackling. "I think our kids are really excited and we kind of challenged them a little bit because I think that was an area where we didn't do very well last year. We weren't a great tackling team and we kind of relied on outscoring people last year, so that's a huge emphasis right now and a chance to play a game and see what we're like in July is important right now."
As usual, added Hall, the most difficult part of preparing for the Pacific Rim Bowl is figuring out how much of the playbook can be taught in the time crunch. He wants the Grizzlies to have options, but he doesn't want to overwhelm a group that isn't exactly loaded with varsity experience.
"That's the problem," Hall said. "You want to have enough things in your tool bag to go there and have some plays and have some different coverages and blitzes and things like that, but you want your kids to have success, too.
"When you put things in in August you're building for the whole season and that's the challenge, trying to find the right balance about what our kids can handle, and that's a process that as coaches we learn every day. We try to put some plays in and if we realize that maybe this is too much, we'll back off the next day. We're learning more about our younger players' ability to retain information and to understand the concepts that we're teaching right now."
Already, Hall is excited about the possibilities. After Thursday's practice at the Ashland High practice field, the former Northern Arizona offensive coordinator reeled off names and positions, heights and weights, boasting that the Grizzlies should eventually be able to dictate tempo.
Shahin and junior quarterback Jake Scarminach will play key roles, as will junior tight end Brent Hegdahl, senior slot receiver Nick Hall and senior receiver Oliver Krant.
"I think we have enough personnel to be diverse in a lot of areas," Hall said. "I always love to be balanced. Last year I thought we were a little more pass than run, but half the time I called pass (quarterback) Talon (Haggard) ran anyway because that's the way he was wired, and sometimes it was great and sometimes it wasn't great. I'd rather live more on what we're trying to get done as a game plan."
Though the Grizzlies' participation numbers don't compare, they played Japan to a standstill in 2007 before a long touchdown pass by the All-Stars midway through the fourth quarter proved to be the difference. Ashland's scrappy performance was a sign of things to come, however, as Ashland went on to claim its first Southern Sky Conference championship, snap an eight-year playoff drought and advance to the Class 5A state quarterfinals.
While the Grizzlies are preparing in an effort to snap Japan's streak, they're also bracing for the cultural immersion aspect of the trip. Before every practice Hall teaches the players about five key words in Japanese and quizzes them on the previous day's lesson. Hopefully, he said, by the time the Grizzlies land in Osaka they'll be able to "catch their host family by surprise by knowing just a skill sheet, a little bit of Japanese."
For some of the players, connecting with their host families won't take very long at all, despite the language barrier. Wright will be staying with a player he hosted in 2007. He's kept in touch through e-mail and is looking forward to the reunion.
Before that, Wright will have to clear a hurdle of sorts — his first plane flight. And it's a long one. The average flight time from San Francisco to Osaka is a little more than nine hours.
"I'll be all right," Wright said.
Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or firstname.lastname@example.org