The last time the Ashland Grizzlies faced the Japan All-Stars, Ashland quarterback Danial White stunned everyone — including himself — with one of the best individual performances in Pacific Rim Bowl history.
Now, White has a chance to pull off a rare feat in the 25-year history of the PRB by uncorking a second MVP-type performance, an accomplishment that would give Ashland back the lead, 7-6, in the long-running series. Just one problem. Japan, White suspects, has not forgotten what happened at Phillips Field in 2011 and is determined to make amends.
"I remember when I was a sophomore, I heard the coaches talking after the game," White recalls, "and they were saying, 'He's just a sophomore, you're going to see him in another two years.' I was like, 'Oh.'"
The Japan All-Stars will get their shot at revenge soon enough. Pacific Rim Bowl XIII kicks off at 6:30 p.m. Saturday (1:30 a.m. Pacific) at Oji Stadium in Kobe, Japan. The game, played every two years at alternating sites, will be broadcast live on UStream (www.ustream.tv/channel/rtv-sports) but fans can also watch the game on a big screen at Northwest Pizza in Ashland. The pregame show will start at 1 a.m. Pacific.
As always, the Japan All-Stars are expected to provide a formidable test for the Grizzlies, who won the 2011 game 26-0 to snap what had been a five-game winning streak for the Japanese. The host team is made up of 61 players who were picked from a pool of 250 representing 28 Kansai-area high schools.
Forty-three players, two Ashland High students and eight coaches made the trip for Ashland. They arrived Monday and were scheduled to practice four times before the game.
A change in OSAA policy regarding offseason work made the window of opportunity for practicing in full pads smaller than ever for an Ashland team preparing for a PRB. Consequently, Ashland head coach Charlie Hall says the Grizzlies' ability to adjust to the physical aspects of the game will be key.
"It's really about being able to run the ball and block and protect the quarterback — the football part of things," Hall said before one of Ashland's last practices in Ashland, July 19. "Seven on seven is basketball on grass, but really, with the football part of it we're kind of untested right now. The good thing is that we've got quite a few guys that played last year that are returning, so hopefully they'll get back into game-ready shape in no time and we'll tee it up."
Arguably the best of those returners is senior linebacker/fullback Mason Montgomery. Built like a human wrecking ball at 6-feet, 215 pounds, the hard-hitting Montgomery is a fourth-year starter who's coming off a Midwestern League defensive co-MVP season. While he's known for his dominance on the defensive side of the ball, it's Montgomery's move from the line to the backfield on offense that may turn more heads initially.
White will start at quarterback for the third season in a row but will have to adjust to a new crop of receivers, as three of the Grizzlies' top four pass-catchers from a year ago graduated and the fourth — Carter Glick — is playing summer baseball and did not make the trip. That makes sophomore Shashi Penn, who caught 13 passes for 214 yards last season, Ashland's most accomplished receiver in Japan.
Also figuring into the Grizzlies' plans on offense this week are senior receiver Matt Hedges, junior tight end Parker Layton and junior running back Ryne Robitz.
And when in doubt, the Grizzlies also have a running option in White, a turbocharged dual-threat who completed 19 of 23 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns while also rushing for 39 yards in the 2011 PRB.
"(White's) a big part of the offense," Hall said. "We know he's a great running quarterback, but you worry about that — how much to run him because you take some chances when you run your quarterback, getting too many hits."
White himself is confident in his durability as well as Ashland's ability to hit back when the whistle blows for the first time Saturday.
"We've been kind of breaking that rust off by going to passing league and getting these practices out," he said before leaving for Japan. "Our last day of padded practice is going to be the game, so we should be able to get over the hump with the soreness and all that comes with it. We're really heavy loaded with seniors this year — we've got a lot of seniors that'll be contributing — so I feel pretty confident about it."
Defensively, Montgomery will give the Grizzlies some serious playmaking ability at middle linebacker, while seniors Tyree Heesacker, Cody Eisenberg and Joe Hearn will anchor a D-line that Hall expects to be solid all year.
The biggest question mark may be in the defensive backfield, where the Grizzlies will have very little varsity experience. Hedges and Sebastian Warren each had an interception last year and will likely see more playing time this season.
With the series tied at 6-6, a win may carry a little extra weight this year for the team that reclaims the series lead, but Hall is keeping the game and everything it represents in perspective.
"We want to win the game but we want to be smart," he said. "There are a lot of things that we want to find out. We want to come out of the game certainly with a win, and we want to come out healthy and with a good perspective of what our team is going to look like in the fall. So we've got to factor all those things in."