It's on to league play for Grizzlies

The Grizzlies may not have a true center, or even a prototypical point guard. In fact, labels like "C," "F" and "PG" may be useless this season.

Balanced in both size and skill level, the Ashland High boys basketball team is a unique beast, one that head coach Larry Kellems believes will find strengths in what some may considered weaknesses.

"These other teams, they have to pick their poison," Kellems said prior to Monday's practice, Ashland's last chance to prepare for tonight's Southern Sky Conference opener at Crater. "If they want to shut Mason (Costantino) down, fine, but we're going to be sprouting up in other places. We've got plenty in our arsenal."

The seventh-ranked Grizzlies (7-5) have reason to be confident. They've won five of their last six games despite playing shorthanded — Costantino, maybe the team's best all-around player, hasn't played since spraining his ankle Dec. 11, and two more rotation players missed a three-game tournament in Bend last week. No matter. Even without Costantino, Ashland won its own Rotary Hoops Classic then went 2-1 to take fourth place at the Central Oregon Les Schwab Tournament.

Now Ashland's at full strength again and is the highest ranked SSC team heading into tonight's showdown in Central Point, but Kellems isn't taking anything for granted, especially considering the league's playoff situation: only two teams out of the SSC will advance to postseason play this year, and only one can clinch a spot during the 12-game league schedule. That's because for the first time in its four-year history, the SSC will utilize a postseason tournament to determine seeds.

All five teams in the conference will get a shot at the playoffs, with the No. 5 finisher traveling to play No. 2, and No. 3 hosting No. 4 in the first round. The winners meet in a semifinal round and the team that's left then plays the league champion in a game that will determine the top two seeds.

"I think I like it because it does fill that void that we've had the last three years," Kellems said, referring to the two- or three-week gap between games that league champions often face heading into their first state playoff date. "I don't know if it helps playing the same team four times, but it is what it is when you only have five teams."

Indeed, the SSC will once again employ a triple round-robin format, meaning each team will play every other team three times for a total of 12 league games. Ashland gets two big ones right off the bat: tonight's rivalry game against the Comets (2-9), and Friday's game against the only other SSC team currently ranked, No. 15 Klamath Union.

Kellems believes the Pelicans (8-4) could be Ashland's toughest roadblock to a league title.

"I probably still think Klamath Union is the most athletic team and they have the most experience, however, I think our boys are playing really well and they have come along probably even further than I anticipated," Kellems said.

The Grizzlies' roster includes seven players listed at 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3, plus two 6-footers. No worries, Kellems explains, because Ashland's size advantages in the backcourt will make up for their relative disadvantages inside. That, plus post players Ian Kendall (6-0) and Jordan Resch (6-2) play much bigger than their measurements indicate.

"We're going to be a difficult team for other teams to match up with," Kellems said.

And, he added, it doesn't hurt that the Grizzlies have eight seniors and just one underclassmen.

"They're unified in what their goals are," he added. "(The seniors) take control of a lot of things in practice. They make our practices better every day. Their goal is to be better every day because they know where they want to be in March — they want to be in a home playoff game and they want to go to Mac Court."

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