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Grizzlies ready to jump into the tough MWL fray

Playing in arguably the most competitive league that Class 5A has to offer means that there are very few easy nights ahead for the Ashland High boys basketball team.

So the goal of head coach Sam Osofsky was simple — put together a non-league schedule that tried to prepare his squad as much as it possibly could.

With three wins in their first five games, Osofsky feels like that was achieved entering tonight’s Midwestern League opener on the road at Willamette (3-1) in Eugene.

“We feel like it’s prepared us really well. We’ve played some challenging teams,” Osofsky said. “South (Medford) was a good challenge for us and they were a good match-up. We felt like we could have executed better, but it was tough. We played Servite in the George Whittell tournament and that was a challenge. We like that we feel like we beat the teams we should have beat, so going into league we feel prepared.”

Ashland (3-2) is coming off a 61-59 overtime win against South Medford, the Grizzlies’ first win in over the Panthers in at least two decades.

Two of the Grizzlies’ five games this season have come against 6A opposition, with Ashland also dropping its first game at Mountain Avenue Gymnasium to Roseburg on Dec. 4.

But its that level of competition where the Grizzlies feel has prepared them for the quality of play they’re about to see over the next 2 1/2 months.

Especially so knowing that the MWL is loaded once again and there are two more league games this season compared to last with the addition of North Bend and Willamette, who are a combined 7-1 to start the year.

“It starts with the talent in the league. There’s great talent and most schools — probably every school, actually — feels good about where they’re at,” Osofsky said. “That’s exciting to see good basketball, athletic and talented boys on the court. On top of that, the league is well-coached, and we feel like if you’re not prepared every night that you’re going against somebody who’s going for a state title. That’s a huge challenge.

“The players being as talented as they are along with the coaching being as strong as it is and the fans showing up and having packed gyms — you can’t ask for more. But it’s a huge challenge every night and there’s no (easy) win in this league. You have to go earn it every single night.”

Case in point: Of the four state semifinalists a year ago, three were from the MWL (Crater, Churchill and Thurston). Those three teams — which includes state champion Thurston — have essentially picked up where they left off to end the 2017-18 campaign, going a combined 13-1 in the first three weeks of the new season.

But that’s not breaking news to Osofsky’s crew.

They know the MWL can be such a grind because of how deep it is and only will continue to be that way.

“We’re taking it step by step,” said senior guard KJ Pippa, who’s leading the Grizzlies in scoring again this season. “We know the teams that we have to play and we have a tough league. But, I think, we know how to play within each other and we’re going to go out there and play hard. We just have to know who we’re playing against. We’ve got to be ready for anything.”

Osofsky knows that the core group of his team from last season has plenty of experience under their belts already.

Pippa, an all-league selection last year, is one of just three seniors on the roster. But the Grizzlies’ junior class — headlined by starters Gabe Ekwall, Lowell Saulsbury and Nate Desmond — is one that has already logged plenty of minutes at the varsity level dating back to last season.

“We trust in each other and we just want to win,” Pippa said. “We play so hard that, I think, we can just score whenever. I think it’s all about Sam and he teaches us a lot. We learn from him, we learn from each other and we’re just going to keep going.”

The attitude of his team is one of the things that Osofsky likes the most about this edition of the Grizzlies.

And while he’s unsure of what the future will hold from them as they begin MWL play tonight, he knows he won’t have to question their effort.

Now all that’s left is, as Osofsky has been emphasizing from the beginning of preseason practices, just to go out and execute.

“They care a lot and they’re invested,” Osofsky said. “From a leadership aspect, that’s been great. A lot of these guys have been sophomores on varsity, they’ve played important minutes for two or three years, so they’re prepared. This league doesn’t do you any favors and they’re prepared for it. They’ve seen the best of this league and they feel like they’re ready to go and they can compete with anybody on any given night.”

Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.

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