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ASHLAND — The deep ball wasn't a big part of Ashland's offensive arsenal through the first eight games of the regular season, but the Grizzlies opened up the playbook for Game No. 9 and the results were devastating.
Connor Kaegi completed two long bombs, including one for a touchdown, in the first quarter and RJ Atteberry added a third deep strike on a trick play, as Ashland raced out to a 21-7 lead then leaned on its defense the rest of the way for a 27-14 Midwestern League victory over Eagle Point on Friday at Walter A. Phillips Field.
The win sends the Grizzlies (6-3, 5-2 MWL) streaking into next week's Class 5A state play-in round with four wins in a row, which should be good enough to secure Ashland a home game. Eagle Point (5-4, 3-4), meanwhile, will hit the road after seeing its two-game winning streak snapped.
"You gotta give the receivers credit, and the offensive line for protecting (Kaegi)," Ashland head coach Charlie Hall said. "(Kaegi) gives us a chance to push the ball down vertically and he did a great job of that, and the receivers did a great job of making some plays. This gives us something we can build on and hopefully advance as far as we can in the playoffs."
Kaegi, who completed 20 of 30 passes for 260 yards, hit Quaid Walters with a 51-yard strike to set up Ashland's first score, then fired a 57-yard rocket to Atteberry on the last play of the first quarter to put the Grizzlies ahead 21-7 after the PAT. Later, Atteberry added another highlight in what turned out to be a stellar all-around performance, taking a handoff on a reverse and gunning a beautiful 27-yard touchdown pass to Walters.
That clutch play, which came with 3:20 to go in the first half, capped the final scoring drive of the game, as Ashland's defense pitched a shutout the rest of the way, holding the Eagles to 271 yards and 12 first downs.
Atteberry, a slippery 6-foot, 175-pound senior, did a little bit of everything for the Grizzlies. Along with the touchdown pass, the former quarterback finished with eight catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns, including a dazzling catch-and-run from the 9 that gave Ashland's its second score.
Walters also came up big, catching five passes for 113 yards, while Carter Glick caught five passes for 50 yards.
But it was Atteberry's perfect pass to Walters off a reverse that produced the loudest ovation of the night.
"We had the perfect situation for it," Walters said. "It was great protection by the line, great execution with the handoffs. RJ had a perfect ball going back to his quarterback days — he put the ball right where it needed to be."
"We talked to the kids all week about not giving up the big plays, and if we could limit the big plays we had a chance," Eagle Point coach Jacob Schauffler said. "I think we did a good job of that in the second half, but we couldn't do it in the first half. I was extremely happy and proud of the way our kids bounced back and continued to play."
Jorge Quintero's 45-yard scoring strike to Kyle Zerger completed a 67-yard drive for the Eagles and tied the game at 7. Later, Eagle Point got within 21-14 when Jakob Combs plowed into the end zone from four yards out to complete a 67-yard drive early in the second quarter.
Combs finished with 81 yards rushing on 22 carries, while Caleb Ash had 71 yards rushing on six carries for the Eagles, who struggled to put the ball in the air as their situation became more dire in the fourth quarter.
Quintero completed 9 of 21 passes for 124 yards, and Zerger caught two passes for 47 yards.
Early in the third quarter Eagle Point failed to capitalize on what turned out to be its best scoring opportunity of the second half. Quintero's 28-yard pass to Carlos Flores gave the Eagles a first-and-goal at the Ashland 7 on their first drive of the second half, but Eagle Point stalled after that, turning the ball over on downs when Quintero was sacked by Austin Chandler on fourth-and-goal at the 4.
The Eagles had only two more opportunities inside the Ashland 25 the rest of the way and couldn't cash in on either. Ashland cornerback Jon Volz, who also had 68 yards rushing, picked off a Quintero pass in the end zone with 5:39 to go in the game, and later Quintero overthrew everybody on the final play of the game from the Ashland 20.
"We thought that if we could get a nice cushion with our lead that they wouldn't have the throwing game to get themselves back into the game," Volz said. "They just have to run the ball and the clock would eventually run out, and that's exactly what happened."
The Grizzlies finished with 390 yards of total offense, including 307 through the air — the team's second combined 300-plus yard passing game of the season.
"I'm just excited for our kids and our fans to get to watch the Grizzlies again next week," Hall said. "Our seniors deserved this on senior night and we'll have a chance to do it again."