Next stop: Japan

As is always the case two days before the team is set to begin its long journey to Japan for the Pacific Rim Bowl, the 43 Ashland High football players scheduled to make the trip have more on their minds than just football.

There's the language barrier, which the Grizzlies have been attempting to navigate through classes, focusing on useful every-day phrases or questions ("good morning" translates to "ohayou gozaimasu" says Ashland lineman Seth Cowan). There's the cultural barrier and some basic etiquette the players have learned through head coach Charlie Hall's crash course. And of course there's the jam-packed travel schedule, which kicks off with a 4:30 a.m. Sunday flight out of Medford and also includes a bullet train ride to Hiroshima and a bus trip to Kyoto.

And at the end of it all is the game itself: Pacific Rim Bowl XIII, July 27 in Oji Stadium in Kobe, Japan (6 p.m. local time, 2 a.m. Pacific).

So has all the preparation left any room for the Grizzlies to appreciate what's coming, pull back and look at the big picture? Absolutely, says the quarterback.

"It feels surreal," said senior QB Danial White, who led the Grizzlies to a 26-0 win in PRB XII in 2011, completing 19 of 23 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns in his first varsity start. "I've been looking forward to it since I was in the seventh grade. We'd be like, 'Oh, our senior year I get to go to Japan.' There's nothing better than that. And it's going to be my first time out of the country, and a couple of other guys' first time out of the country. It's just going to be an amazing experience for all of us."

And it's just around the corner.

After the short flight to Seattle the Grizzlies will board another plane bound for Seoul, Korea, where they are scheduled to arrive on Monday at 4:35 p.m. local time. From there, it's off to Osaka, where the players will meet their host families and go their separate ways.

The Grizzlies' first practice in Japan will be bright and early Tuesday morning, although their bodies will still be telling them that 9:30 a.m. is actually 4:30 p.m. — the previous day, that is. After that first practice, which will be Ashland's first of the summer in full pads, the Grizzlies will head to Mount Rokko for a barbecue.

The Grizzlies will have a similar schedule the next two days, practicing in the morning before heading out for some sightseeing. They'll head to Kyoto on Wednesday to visit the Kinkaku Temple, as well as an old Samarai television studio. On Thursday, it's off to Hiroshima to see the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

The time change takes some getting used to, but Hall says it's usually a smooth transition.

"It's easy to get used to when we're there, but coming back is harder," he said. "Usually when we're there, it's fine. I don't know if it's because the novelty or the adrenaline, the excitement or what. It's pretty cool."

Several of the Grizzlies have some history with the Japan All-Stars, a team made up of 61 players selected from about 250 who try out, representing 28 area high schools. Cowan, an incoming junior, will be the third member of his family to participate in a Pacific Rim Bowl after his two older brothers, Dan and Sam, also faced off against Japan.

Sam Cowan journeyed to Japan for the 2009 game, the most recent PRB played in Japan, which the host team won 20-0. That was Japan's fifth win in a row, a streak that the Grizzlies finally snapped two years later in Ashland to tie the overall series 6-6.

"He said it was great," Seth Cowan said of Sam Cowan. "He had an awesome time and I hope it'll be that good for me. He had a good host family. "¦I'm kind of nervous. I don't know if they'll speak English or not, so it's definitely nerve-racking."

After starring in the last PRB, White has kept in touch with the three players his family hosted in 2011. He's hoping he'll see them again, possibly after the game. What will he do for fun with his host family, which he says will include one of Japan's quarterbacks? He's not sure, but if it's anything like the 2011 experience White's confident the language barrier won't get in the way of having a good time.

"We played ping pong and video games — they loved (John Madden Football)," he said. "But they also liked going around with us and seeing the country and I'm sure I'll be the same way. I'll want to get out and go and see stuff. It'll be a totally different culture and it'll be a different experience."

As for the game itself, Hall says the Grizzlies are a little behind in terms of preparation, in part because the OSAA has tighter restrictions on offseason practices than in years past. Ashland has had enough time to work on its passing game and pass defense through seven-on-seven drills, but the Grizzlies won't be able to experience their first real tackle until Tuesday's practice — the first of four in Japan.

"It's really about being able to run the ball and block and protect the quarterback — the football part of things," Hall said, when asked about the adjustment to full-contact. "Seven on seven is basketball on grass, but really, with the football part of it we're kind of untested right now.

"The good thing is that we've got quite a few guys that played last year that are returning, so hopefully they'll get back into game-ready shape in no time and we'll tee it up."

To reach Tidings sports editor Joe Zavala call 776-4469 or e-mail

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