Grizzlies repeat as SOL champs

MEDFORD — Casey Skolnik and Josh McLaughlin had come so far in four years as cornerstones of Ashland High's hockey program that they weren't about to let a small thing like dead legs spoil their farewell party.

The two seniors overcame a slow start to combine for seven points and sophomore Ian White's first goal of the season was the game-winner as the Grizzlies came from behind to beat rival Crater 5-1 before a standing room only crowd at The RRRink on Saturday night to claim their second straight Southern Oregon League championship.

The title is Ashland's fourth in six seasons and caps a remarkable 17-1-1 season. The Grizzlies outscored their opponents 24-6 in four playoff games en route to the title. But because not enough schools in Oregon field teams, the OSAA does not sponsor a state tournament.

"Probably not our best game of the year, but we found our legs midway through the second period and continued through the third," Ashland first-year coach Tom Harrison said. "We set a goal early in the year to be able to win the championship. This year, we were able to beat Crater four times because of our team-oriented play."

No single play exemplified that better than White's winning goal. With the score tied 1-1 late in the second period and Ashland's second line on the ice, Sam Taylor won a faceoff in the Comets' zone back to Mathias Dean just inside the blue line. Dean's slap shot was handled by Crater goalie Lucas Paulsen, but Paulsen allowed the rebound to trickle to his left where White found the puck and buried it in the back of the net for a 2-1 Ashland lead with 2:09 remaining in the second.

"Everyone has been excited to see Ian score his first goal," Harrison said. "It was magical to see the entire bench erupt. He goes to the net, gets that juicy little rebound and jams it home."

Playing without leading scorer Jake Randol — who was suspended after drawing five penalties in a semifinal win over Churchill the previous night — the Comets played with the vibe and heart of a team that believed an upset was within its reach. They kept the puck away from Skolnik and limited Ashland's chances in front of the net for most of the first two periods.

"We were beating them, hands down, the first half of the game," Crater coach Richard Renfro said. "Fatigue and injuries started to catch up with us. We're playing short-handed and tired."

Crater (10-8-2) took a 1-0 lead on Cody Martin's goal 3:36 into the second period and held it until freshman defenseman Keegan Healy took a pass from Skolnik in the slot and blasted a slap shot past Paulsen that tied the game with 5:46 remaining in the second period. It was the latest that Ashland had scored in any of its 17 wins this seasons.

"I just felt really slow those first two periods," Skolnik said. "I had to keep telling myself 'keep moving my feet and keep skating hard.' "

While Ashland seemed a step slow in the first 25 minutes, the Grizzlies never panicked.

"The biggest worry for me was that we just weren't skating as hard as we have in the past," said McLaughlin, whose two third-period goals iced the victory. "As soon as we started doing that, we picked up the pace and really put it out of reach."

If White's goal opened the floodgates, it was a short-handed tally by Skolnik less than 90 seconds later that took the wind out of the underdog Comets. With Dean in the penalty box for charging, Skolnik got a rare 2-on-1 breakaway with McLaughlin against Comets' defenseman Bryce Crawford. The dynamic duo kept their spacing on the ice and passed the puck back and forth, turning Crawford and Paulsen dizzy, until Skolnik tapped home the goal that extended the lead to 3-1.

"That was just us working the magic," said Skolnik, who also had three assists and finished the season with 54 goals and 93 points in 19 games. "I just came to the back door and he passed it to me and it worked out good."

Without Randol and his 45 goals in the lineup, the Comets were ill-equipped to make a comeback as the Grizzlies held an opponent scoreless in the third period for the seventh time in 19 games this season. One night after peppering Churchill with 33 shots, Crater managed just 14 against Ashland and was held to its lowest scoring output of the season. Crater was 0-for-4 on the powerplay.

"The first two periods, we were a little sloppy, but then we pulled together and united as a team," said Ashland goalie Gabe Dean. "I was the happiest I'd been in quite a while."

The start of the game was delayed for half an hour in order to allow the largest crowd of the season time to purchase tickets and find seats. Both teams seemed to feed off the energy for the first two periods.

"That was awesome," Skolnik said. "Crater always brings a big crowd. It got loud in there. I think that's the most people The RRRink's ever had."

Seven Ashland seniors said goodbye by skating the trophy around the rink for a final time.

"This year it's bittersweet for me," McLaughlin said. "I'm so happy that we won, because we put in so much effort, so much time and so much work and it paid off. At the same time, I realized when the game ended, this is my last game as a high school hockey player. That was sad. I've had a really good time out here.

"I couldn't have hoped for a better way, but you kind of wish it never ends."

Crater 0 1 0 — 1

Ashland 0 3 2 — 5

Second period

CHS: Martin (Crawford), 3:36

AHS: Healy (Skolnik), 9:14

AHS: I. White (M. Dean, Taylor), 12:51

AHS: Skolnik (McLaughlin, Healy), 14:19 (sh)

Third period

AHS: McLaughlin (Skolnik), 4:04 (pp)

AHS: McLaughlin (Skolnik), 13:26

Shots on goals: CHS 14, AHS 29

Power plays: CHS 0/4, AHS 1/ 4

Goalies: CHS, Paulsen (29 shots-24 saves),AHS (G. Dean 14-13).

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