Grizzlies, Pelicans set for season opener

Five weeks after pummeling the Japan all-stars in Pacific Rim Bowl XII, Ashland will try to prove that the impressive, streak-busting victory was no fluke when it hosts Skyline Conference favorite Klamath Union on Friday in the season opener for both teams.

Kickoff is at 7 p.m. at Walter A. Phillips Field, where Ashland hasn't lost since 2009 after going 5-0 there last season.

Both teams enter the season with high expectations after finishing 7-3 and advancing to the state playoffs last season. Both enter the season also knowing precisely what it must do in order to take the next big step and contend for a state title after suffering lopsided playoff losses to eventual state champions — Ashland fell to Sherwood in the 5A state tournament, and KU lost to Baker in the 4A tourney.

The Pelicans will try to make it two wins in a row over the Grizzlies after pulling out a thrilling 14-7 victory in Klamath Falls last year on the strength of Riley Kemp's 82-yard touchdown pass to Peter Bell with 1 minute, 14 seconds to go in the game.

The Kemp-Bell combination also produced KU's first touchdown, a 63-yard strike in the first quarter.

"Last year, we felt like one guy (beat us)," Ashland head coach Charlie Hall said. "And we did well against him, but Peter Bell had two big catches."

This year, the Pelicans will run the spread offense while trying to break in a new quarterback, former tight end super-athlete Alex Stork. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound senior has been lighting up opposing skill players as a stud middle linebacker — one of KU's best "in decades," says head coach Tom Smith — but this year will try to light up opposing defenses as well as a run-pass threat.

"I think if I were them, it would be a Tim Tebow-type of offense," Hall said of Stork's potential impact. "He's a great athlete, and anytime you can get the ball into the hands of a great athlete "…"

Stork, will have plenty of help, as the Pelicans return seven starters on offense and six on defense. That's part of the reason why the Pels were rated No. 1 in the Skyline preseason coaches' poll.

Ashland was rated No. 4 in the Midwestern League preseason poll, but expects to contend for a league title. That would almost certainly require a win over preseason favorite Marist, the defending league champions and the state runner-up, next week in Ashland.

Any chance the Grizzlies will be too busy thinking about the showdown with Marist to focus on Klamath Union?

"I don't think that's been a problem (this week), at least from what I can tell," Hall said. "We as coaches don't talk about it, and there's so much that needs to be done to get ready for (the Pelicans)."

Ashland also runs the spread, headed up by a sophomore quarterback, Danial White, who's coming off one of the best varsity debuts in Ashland history. White completed 19 of 23 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns against Japan, a team that usually compares favorably to most of the Grizzlies' regular-season competition.

White has plenty of capable targets at his disposal — 6-foot-4 tight end Franklin Lime is a load for any defense to handle, and speedburner Taylor Humphrey is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. And area football fans who watched Ashland slice and dice Japan 26-0 will see a more refined, quicker version of the Grizzlies Friday, according to Hall.

Ashland has been working on speeding up its no-huddle approach, which was pretty fast to begin with last season as the Grizzlies averaged 29.6 points per game.

"We've made some major adjustments with some things that will make us more efficient, I think," Hall said.

Tidings sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.

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