MWL showdown: Ashland braces for No. 1 Marist

The Ashland Grizzlies have already impressed, and dispatched, the Japan all stars and the Klamath Union Pelicans. Now they'll have a chance to turn heads across the state.

The ninth-ranked Grizzlies will host No. 1 Marist on Friday in a Midwestern League opener that figures to be telling on several fronts.

Will Ashland compete for a MWL title? Are the Spartans still the team to beat in 5A football? Can the Grizz secondary, which has been stellar so far, handle the fastest receiver in the state?

All those questions could be answered Friday night, when Marist, the 5A runner-up last season, pays a visit to Walter A. Phillips Field for a 7 p.m. kickoff.

"We're looking forward to seeing where we are," Ashland head coach Charlie Hall said. "I guess you don't get a better chance than this, against the No. 1 team in the state."

Both teams enter the showdown fresh off impressive wins — Ashland (1-0) throttled Klamath Union 46-20 and Marist (1-0) held off fifth-ranked Corvallis, 16-14.

Marist hammered Ashland last season, 31-0, in Eugene, but at the time the Grizzlies were still experimenting with their newly-installed pistol offense. Ashland abandoned the pistol soon thereafter in favor of the spread, which has been a huge success.

The Grizzlies have scored 72 points in two games counting their 26-0 victory over Japan in the Pacific Rim Bowl and may need another big day by the offense Friday in order to outscore the speedy Spartans.

Hall expects Marist to mix up its looks and blitz often in an attempt to pressure Ashland sophomore quarterback Danial White, who's been close to flawless directing the Grizzlies' short passing game. White completed 19 of 23 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns against Japan and 14 of 22 passes for 179 yards and three more TDs against Klamath Union. He has yet to throw an interception.

On Friday, White will face his biggest test of the season.

"They'll send more blitzes than any other team we'll see," Hall said of the Spartans. "But we're basically a quick-drop team, and we hope to do it quicker than usual (Friday). And, we've got to be able to run the ball."

Ashland showed a commitment to the run last week, gaining 221 yards on 40 carries led by junior Jon Volz. Afterwards, Klamath Union coach Tom Smith praised the Grizzlies' muscle up front.

"I think their offensive and defensive lines were just great," Smith said. "They were just really good."

When Marist has the ball, the Grizzlies's 4-3 defense will have to find a way to contain an offense that averaged 46.7 points per game last year. Several key players off the 2010 squad are playing in college now, but the receiving corps returns mostly intact. The most dangerous of those wideouts may be track star Taylor Walcott, who recently announced that he plans on playing football in college despite winning the 5A state championship in the 100-meter dash last spring. His suitors include Idaho, Eastern Washington, Portland State, Montana and North Dakota.

Walcott, who can run a 10.84 100, scored Marist's only two touchdowns — one rushing and one receiving — against Corvallis.

Also back for the Spartans is receiver Austin Baird, who caught two touchdowns against the Grizzlies last year, and running back Greg Park, who broke a 65-yard TD run against the Grizzlies in 2010.

"We have a bunch of really good players," Walcott told the Eugene Register Guard. "If teams focus on me, (Baird) and (Park) will have a great year, so that will be fun. When you have (Baird), who can catch and break tackles, you can't focus on one guy. I think our offense is just as good as last year. I believe that."

In order for the Grizzlies to keep that offense under control, Hall said, the Grizzlies must limit short-yardage situations by making open field tackles and limiting big plays.

Will that leave room for some opportunistic blitzing?

"That's the chess match that you play on defense," Hall said. "I think you've got to pick and chose those battles.

"But you don't want to put yourself in second-and-short and third-and-short situations. If we can put them in predictable passing situations then that's going to help us."

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