Simply by nature, Ashland head coach Abdi Guled is as jovial as it gets.
Then you ask him about the Ashland High boys soccer team not having to travel anywhere other than to Walter A. Phillips Field for tonight’s 5:30 p.m. opening-round game of the OSAA Class 5A state playoffs against Wilsonville and that ever-present smile of his gets stretched as wide as can be.
“It can’t get any better,” Guled said. “This is wonderful. This is every team’s dream to have a first-round game and have it on your home turf. I think this is going to be awesome, and we just can’t wait to play and see whatever comes up. We’re here to play and we’re looking forward to it.
“To be here, it’s just a privilege and it’s nice to have a home game. We’ve there (to Wilsonville) and we know how far it is to drive and how long it takes to get here, so it’s a great feeling for Ashland soccer.”
The fifth-seeded Grizzlies (8-3-2 overall) were able to capture the Midwestern League title on the final day of the regular season Saturday with a 2-0 win over Springfield, rebounding well from their only league loss seven days earlier to Churchill.
The loss to Churchill was Ashland’s only defeat after starting the season 1-2. Since then, Ashland — which allowed seven goals in its eight league games, four of which coming in a 4-4 draw with Thurston on Sept. 29 — has only gotten better as its wide array of youngsters have gotten up to speed on the varsity level.
Now, as many of them prepare for the first playoff game of their varsity career, they’re hoping to take the momentum from Saturday’s season-closing win into the postseason.
“We’re all pretty hyped about it,” Ashland freshman forward Davidson Graham said. “We’re tight (as a team) already and this is our first time playing with each other. I feel like we’re really close and we might just get it tomorrow. It’s going to be a really tough game.”
For a team that didn’t really know what to expect entering the season because they had to replace the vast majority of their roster after graduating 14 seniors, the Grizzlies now enter the postseason looking to extend their season another week or two.
“It’s just all preparation,” Ashland sophomore winger Noah Aguilar said. “We just look at the standings and know what we’re going against. We lost against Churchill, but we realized we had to step it up — and we did.
“Against Wilsonville, we have no idea what they’re like because we haven’t played any of the teams they’ve played, so it’s just in our heads now. It’s nothing about the other team, it’s all about us.”
While Ashland has made the playoffs each of the last six years, the Grizzlies will be looking to make it past the first round for the first time since they claimed a 1-0 win over Liberty in 2014. They were the No. 5 seed back then — just like they are this year.
The last time Ashland and Wilsonville played each other in the playoffs was well before any of the current players were in high school — a 3-0 Wildcats win over the Grizzlies in the opening round of the 2012 playoffs.
“I remember five or six years we went there and they seemed like a very fast team,” Gueld recalled. “They have good skills. It will be a fun game and we’ll give them a good game.”
While the Grizzlies admit they don’t know all that much about this season’s edition of the Wildcats — who finished 7-6-2 overall and finished in second place behind Class 5A’s No. 1 seed La Salle Prep in the Northwest Oregon Conference — the challenge of facing somebody that’s new to them is one they’re taking in stride.
“Since we don’t know anything about them, (Wilsonville) could be the best team or the worst team, but it doesn’t change anything,” Aguilar said. “It’s more about us and we know what we can do. We know how we can win the game, it’s not about the other team, really.”
No matter what happens tonight, the Grizzlies know one thing: They’re at home — and that is something that they can truly appreciate.
“It’s a great feeling because everybody thought we weren’t going to do all that great,” Graham said. “Everybody thought the year we were going to do well was in two years, but this year we’re raw and next year we’re going to be even better. It’s just great.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.