No. 3 Grizzlies brace for tough playoff clash with No. 6 Mt. View

The Ashland High volleyball team is 3-0 in state play-in matches since the reclassification took effect in 2006. But none of those opponents posed the kind of threat that the Grizzlies will face this time around.

In one of the most intriguing playoff matches of the second round, No. 3 Ashland (14-6) hosts No. 6 Mountain View (14-7) Saturday night at Ashland Middle School for a spot in next week's Class 5A state tournament in Hillsboro.

The Cougars hail from the toughest conference in the state — the Intermountain Conference features three of the top six teams in 5A volleyball, including No. 1 Summit and No. 2 Crook County — and finished as state runner-ups in 2008 and 2006. They also enter Saturday's match on five-match winning streak.

Ashland, meanwhile, competes in the Southern Sky Conference, arguably the weakest conference in the state, and is coming off a five-game loss to Class 4A Henley.

Still, the Grizzlies are, like Mountain View, proven postseason performers. Their jam-packed trophy case includes a state championship (2005), three third-place finishes and two fourth-places finishes in the last three years.

In short, two powerhouses will square off at 5 p.m. Saturday, and only one will move on to the final eight-team tourney.

"They're ready for that," Ashland third-year coach Jodee Scott said of her team. "They know right now that every team left is a great team, that's why they're still alive, and so they know that they're going to have good matches, that it's not going to be easy and they're excited for that. This is what volleyball's about. It's not about crushing your opponent, it's about the rallies. It's a game of mistakes, and the team that makes the least amount of mistakes is the team that gets to go home the winner."

Ashland is led by senior middle blocker Niki Small, a 6-foot-1 tower of power who is as dangerous on defense as she is on offense. One of the top middles in the state, Small has already committed to Northern Arizona University, a Division I-FCS school, and figures to see plenty of battles up front Saturday against Mountain View's trio of tall middle hitters, Sarah Roshak (6-0), Karri Heacock (5-11) and Maddy Seevers (6-1).

Small has plenty of help up front. Setter Callie McCoy has fit in perfectly since transferring from South Medford over the summer, dishing to hitters such as Hayley Ross and Samantha Boehnke.

Ashland's back row defense comes in the form of Piper Cantrell and Elizabeth Westmoreland, and the Grizzlies also get contributions out of Monica Palmesano, Ila Sturges and Drew Van Vleck.

Ashland lost one of its top hitters and most skilled all-around players recently when Hannah Stocking, a senior, left the team for personal reasons, but Scott said the Grizzlies have made all the necessary adjustments and are as confident as ever heading into the postseason.

"I'm really happy with where we're playing, I'm really happy with everybody is, coming into their own confidence wise," she said. "Our team is developing and playing more and more like a team."

Ashland dominated the SSC as expected, racking up eight easy wins to finish its four-year run in the league with a 24-0 record. The Grizzlies were rarely challenged in league play, but still managed to gain necessary big-match experience through a loaded nonconference schedule that ranked as the most difficult in 5A.

Ashland was 1-2 against Roseburg, a 6A school, and also notched impressive wins over North Medford and Grants Pass, two more 6A programs. The Grizzlies also faced Mountain View, beating the Cougars in a three-game affair that went down to the wire.

The winner of the Ashland-Mountain View rematch will face either St. Helens or Jefferson in the state quarterfinals, Nov. 13 at Liberty High School.

The Grizzlies plan on being there.

"It's something that we've been working really, really hard for and I feel like we deserve it," McCoy said. "We really have worked hard for this and it means a lot to us."

Small agreed.

"I think we're ready," she said. "We've been waiting for it. We have such a drive to want to go to state. You can feel it. We get here early to do all our footwork, we stay late to do team bonding. We're just ready to go for it."

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