To Ashland High head football coach Charlie Hall, the true worth of the Pacific Rim Bowl goes far beyond blocks and tackles. It's a culture immersion first, he says, an educational extravaganza second and, finally, an exhibition football game.
Still, after all the time in the air and on the road, after all the handshaking and sightseeing, after all the pomp and circumstance that precedes every PRB — especially this 25th anniversary edition — it's nice to play well once the whistle blows. And, Hall is happy to report, the Grizzlies did.
Flashing some electric playmaking ability and a little razzle-dazzle, the Grizzlies built a big lead before fending off a fourth-quarter comeback attempt by the Japanese All-Stars to claim a 32-30 victory in Pacific Rim Bowl XIII Saturday at Oji Stadium in Kobe, Japan.
"It was a great game and a great culmination of a week's worth of activities that helped our kids learn about the Japanese culture," said Hall in a phone interview as he waited to catch a flight from Seattle, Wash., to Medford late Monday night. "Plus, the game was exciting. The kids played well and they competed very well."
The win gave Ashland a 7-6 lead in the all-time series, which resumes every other year at alternating sites and dates to 1988.
Playing under the lights in a game that started at 6:30 p.m. local time (1:30 a.m. Pacific), the Grizzlies used a trick play to score their first touchdown. Senior quarterback Danial White took the snap at the Japan 36, tossed a lateral across the field to slot receiver Max Montgomery, who then hit senior receiver Sebastian Warren about 30 yards down field for the game's first score. Ashland added one more touchdown in the first half to take a 12-2 lead into the break, with Japan's only points coming on a rare pick-two — a two-point conversion attempt that resulted in an interception which was returned to the other end zone.
After a scoreless third quarter, both teams caught fire in the fourth, with Japan scoring 28 points and Ashland 20 — just enough to hang on.
Japan scored on a gadget play of its own — quarterback Kyohei Kokaji threw a lateral to Hirokazu Maeda, who then tossed it right back to Kokaji for the easy 11-yard touchdown — with 20 seconds to go in the game to cut the lead to two points. But Japan but could not recover the ensuing onside kick.
Ashland wound up with 389 yards of total offense — 212 passing and 177 rushing. White completed 10 of 16 passes for 176 yards while also rushing for 41 yards and two touchdowns, including a 3-yard sweep with 43 seconds to go in the game. Junior Ryne Robitz had 11 carries for 70 yards, and sophomore Shashi Penn five carries for 57 yards and a touchdown.
Ashland junior tight end Parker Layton showed off his big-play potential, catching three passes for 113 yards, including a 51-yard bomb three minutes into the fourth quarter.
"Just having that nice, big, physical tight end with good hands is going to help," Hall said of the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Layton. "The way he was able to get yards after catches, knocking guys over — that was impressive. He started on varsity last year but he's a whole different player this year."
Afterward, the Grizzlies and their Japanese hosts — the 43 players and two AHS students stayed with 22 hosts families — gathered at midfield for congratulatory hugs and photos.
The Grizzlies spent the week soaking in the Japanese culture and visiting local tourist destinations. They visited a temple built in the 14th century on Wednesday, spent several somber hours at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum on Thursday, toured an old Samurai television studio and also had time to relax with their host families. As always, Hall said, bonds were formed.
"First and foremost, the host family experience was probably second to none this time," said Hall, entering his ninth year as Ashland's head coach. "Our kids just made great connections with the host families and host brothers, and to me that really is the true meaning of learning the Japanese culture, through those host families. After the game, the camaraderie between the players of Japan and Ashland was great — there was a strong bond that really came together at the end of the game."
As far as the game itself, Ashland accomplished just about everything it had hoped to and returns to Ashland with its second straight PRB win after losing five in a row in a decade-long slump.
Perhaps most impressive was the ease with which the Grizzlies were able to move the ball. Hall wasn't necessarily surprised that the Grizzlies turned what looked to be small gains into big plays on offense, but he was happy to see that they didn't get gun-shy after the Japanese stormed back.
"I think from an intangibles standpoint, it's a team that has a little fight in them," Hall said. "There were a few times when they could have folded under the pressure of the comeback by Japan. It was hot and a lot of kids were playing both directions (on offense and defense). But the kids who came in did a great job, and from a team standpoint, it's a group that has some resolve that will compete in the fourth quarter, so that was good to see."
While the skill position players hurt Japan in the open field, Ashland's big guys also performed. Offensive linemen Nate Carver, Ivan Tagui and Tyree Heesacker opened up big holes. Defensively, senior lineman Cody Eisenberg had two sacks and three pass breakups.
"Thanks to the offensive line, I thought, we were able to run the ball pretty effectively," Hall said. "It was hot and it was humid and it's been a week of travel and not great sleep, and a different diet. And through all of those adjustments, I thought they did a really good job."
Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-776-4469, or email email@example.com