Coming into the 2018 boys soccer season, it was never going to take Ashland head coach Abdi Guled all that long to count how many seniors the Grizzlies were going to have on their roster.
He didn’t even need multiple fingers.
All of one senior, now-captain Trevor Fulton, was back from a team that went 11-2-2 and ran the table in league play to capture the Midwestern League title.
It was, essentially, an entirely new team that Guled had on his hands, with inexperience rather than seniority being a common theme no matter where he looked.
“We came into this year not really expecting much because last year the team was just amazing,” Fulton said.
At the midway point of the MWL schedule a year later, the Grizzlies are basically in the same spot where they ended last season even though the names having the success are different than 12 months prior.
With their unbeaten league record of 3-0-1, Ashland (5-2-2 overall) entered Wednesday’s slate of action — one where the Grizzlies were off and enjoying the final days of an 11-day break between games — atop the MWL standings.
“We’re doing really well and we didn’t really expect this, but of course we’re happy about it,” Fulton said.
“Right now, I feel like our whole season focus is this is not building year, this is the year,” added Ashland co-captain Scott Gustafson. “Every year is the year right now, so we’ve just kept pushing and we’re not looking at it as if we’re at the top, but we’re looking at it as we still have other leagues to play against if we do make playoffs — and hopefully we do. There’s still a lot of good teams up north and we’re trying to reach that level.”
Depending on how Churchill did against Springfield on Wednesday night — a final score was not available as of press time — Ashland will head into its home game against North Eugene on Saturday afternoon either tied with or two points behind the Lancers.
No matter what had happened in Churchill’s game Wednesday, though, Ashland knows that once it starts the second half of league play this weekend, it’s going to be right in the middle of the late-season action.
“Our players have done a good job keeping up with their focus of the game,” Guled said. “It’s too early to call what’s going happen because our league this year looks stronger — and that’s a good thing to figure out to see who goes first, second and third until the last game.”
The Grizzlies’ roster is far from the experienced group of 14 seniors from a year ago, with all of three players back from the 2017 squad and there being mostly sophomores and juniors leading the way this time around.
It’s been an interesting road to get where they currently are.
But once the youngsters found their footing, the Grizzlies have found their success.
They’ve had relatively straightforward wins. And they’ve also picked up points where things are anything but routine.
Ashland’s lone outing where it has dropped points came in a wild 4-4 draw with Thurston two weeks ago, a game where the Grizzlies led 2-0 before seeing the Colts fight back in the dying minutes to level things up.
The Grizzlies’ last game over a week ago on Oct. 2, a 3-2 win over Eagle Point, saw Ashland surrender the lead twice before finally holding on for the win.
“In the very beginning of the season, we had a tough loss in our first game (against Catlin Gabel School), but we hadn’t really ever practiced together,” Fulton said. “Throughout the season, we’ve just gotten better and better. Our defense has gotten better and I’ve noticed improvement there. We’ve just gotten better playing as a team and knowing each others’ playing styles.”
Added Gustafson: “Our chemistry has grown a lot and it’s just getting better and better. Our middle is starting to click a lot, and just our development from defense to offense is starting to crispen up. The game is starting to get sharper, we’re starting to pass more, find new plays and making more happen.”
The second half schedule is no easy task, including a trip to Eugene on Oct. 20 to face a Churchill team that hadn’t allowed a goal through its first nine games entering Wednesday.
But at their current rate, not only could another MWL title potentially come to Ashland, but a pretty good playoff seed as well.
And for a team that was so young and didn’t really know what to expect coming into the season, that’s a pretty good foundation to set for the future.
“We hope we’ll keep climbing up and we’ll see what happens,” Guled said. “This team is starting to believe in themselves and they’re playing hard, playing with confidence. That’s the main thing is to love the game that they have. I’m so proud of these kids for how much they love the game of soccer — and that’s what uniting them together, the love of the game.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.