Athletic directors at the Class 5A level have proven to be the most invested in controlling their own playoff destiny since a switch to the...
The football teams at Ashland and Eagle Point high schools are thrilled to be part of the Midwestern League and enjoy all that comes with it.
That said, there's something their MWL foes cannot provide that will be in place Friday when the Grizzlies play host to the Eagles — and that makes all the difference in the world.
"It's unfortunate we don't have the games like we used to have, when it was Ashland and North Medford or Roseburg where the stadium was full of people," said Grizzlies head coach Charlie Hall. "This is really our only really big game anymore on the schedule when it's us and Eagle Point. You just don't get those big crowds across the field from the Eugene teams but I'm sure Eagle Point will travel well (Friday) and this place will be rocking. It's really a high school kid's dream to play in front of a packed house with that excitement level and chance to make big plays, and we'll finally have that Friday night."
Eagles head coach Jacob Schauffler agrees, making the regular-season finale more of a true rivalry game with all that comes with it.
"A game like this for us and for Ashland, at this point, is more about pride and bragging rights in the valley for the next year than anything else," said Schauffler. "I know their kids want to beat our kids and we surely want to beat them, too."
Such a backdrop only adds to the atmosphere that also is full of postseason possibilities thanks to a change in the way Class 5A programs are handling playoff qualification.
This year, the top eight teams when the power rankings are frozen at midnight Saturday automatically advance to the state playoffs. Team Nos. 9-24 will then fall into a play-in scenario where No. 9 plays host to No. 24 and so on, while those teams outside the top 24 (unless it's a league champion) are eliminated from playoff contention. Ashland (5-3, 4-2 MWL) enters the game ranked 15th, while Eagle Point (5-3, 3-3) is 21st.
"Because Ashland has a good ranking and they've played some quality opponents outside the league that has helped that ranking, this game could very well help us a ton in the power rankings," said Schauffler, whose team is a little more than 25 points ahead of No. 24 Pendleton in the cutoff spot.
Ashland likely won't be able to advance its position without some key losses statewide but the Grizzlies are in danger of losing a potential home date for the Nov. 2-3 play-in round. Team Nos. 9-16 will receive home games.
"The higher we can be ranked the better," said Hall. "We're looking forward to hosting a play-in game and hopefully not falling in Sherwood or West Albany's backyard to give ourselves a chance in the first round."
The home team has won each of the past four meetings, with Eagle Point holding off an Ashland rally for a thrilling 20-14 triumph that went down to the wire.
Statistically, there's not much that separates the Grizzlies and Eagles through eight games. Ashland averages 387 yards and 31.4 points per game, while Eagle Point counters with 368.6 yards and 32.8 points. Defensively, the Grizzlies are allowing 267.9 yards and 19.6 points and the Eagles are allowing 276.9 yards and 21.1 points. Their turnover ratio is almost equal as well, with EP at plus-3 and Ashland at plus-2.
The only main difference is how each team has come about those figures. The Eagles focus on more of a ground attack that features seniors Jakob Combs and Caleb Ash, while the Grizzlies prefer more of an open-air scheme that utilizes strong-armed quarterback Connor Kaegi and receivers RJ Atteberry and Quaid Walters and then sneaks in QB Danial White to keep you on your toes.
"I could just make a recording and say the same things year in, year out," Schauffler said in breaking down the Grizzlies. "They're extremely disciplined and extremely well-coached. I just have a ton of respect for Charlie and what he's able to do year in, year out. They put up a ton of points and have a great defense that's able to run around and make tackles. It's the same thing each year and it never gets easier to handle."
Hall made the move to a two-quarterback system a few weeks back with an eye toward the future and what might make Ashland more difficult to defend come playoff time. The move, however, has coincided in recent weeks with games against the bottom part of the MWL so Hall said he's eager to see how the Kaegi-White show plays on Friday.
"This will be our truest test against a very worthy opponent in Eagle Point," said Hall. "We're looking forward to having a very meaningful game, not that the last three haven't been, but this being a rivalry with both of us having the same records and playing for pride, I'll be interested to see if our level of improvement is still growing."
The same goes on the other side of the field, where the Eagles will look to see how their ground-heavy scheme and their active defense holds up at this point of the season.
"They're going to come in and show that they're a physical threat and try to challenge us at the line of scrimmage with their run game and then hit us with the pass in timely situations," said Hall. "We've just got to be able to be patient on offense and take what they give us and not have turnovers. That's what killed us last year and we couldn't get in a lot of rhythm."
Weather conditions could play a role, with Ashland's natural grass surface getting a lot of rain this week and potentially again on Friday night. The Eagles went to an artificial surface this season but Schauffler doesn't believe field conditions will impact his team's running game.
"If you've got the kids who run well with a low center of gravity, which I think we do, I don't think it hurts you to have bad conditions or a muddy field," said Schauffler. "Still, the weather could be an issue for both teams because whoever takes care of the ball the best may decide who comes out on top."