Charlie Hall's cell phone rang toward the end of last Thursday's football practice at Ashland High, and the timing of Dave Kitchell's request couldn't have been better.

Charlie Hall's cell phone rang toward the end of last Thursday's football practice at Ashland High, and the timing of Dave Kitchell's request couldn't have been better.

The head coach gathered his Grizzlies, clicked the speakerphone option on his phone and let longtime assistant Kitchell do the rest.

Only a couple days into his return to the Rogue Valley following treatments for a tumor in his liver at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, Kitchell wanted to make sure his players understood the task at hand — and that it had nothing to do with his battles with cancer.

"They lit up like a Christmas tree they were so excited to hear his voice," Hall said Monday of the call. "He was very strong and clear and told the kids don't worry about me, you've got a job to do and a big game coming Friday, so just go out and finish strong."

Unable to make it to the second-round state-playoff game against Corvallis, Kitchell still found a way to give the players their game-night affirmation as he'd faithfully done for more than 20 years at the school.

Hall said Kitchell's voice was a little weaker in the early stages of a second phone call on Friday, but it cleared once it came time to talk to the players.

The Grizzlies took Kitchell's words to heart and went out and outlasted the visiting Spartans, 14-7, using a goal-line stand in the waning seconds to secure Ashland's first berth in the state quarterfinals since its championship run in 1998.

What the players couldn't have known then, and sadly are too aware of now, is that that was the last time any of them would hear the voice of the charismatic defensive coordinator. Kitchell passed away early Sunday morning at the age of 51.

"We knew that the end would be near," said Hall, "but not this quick."

To the end, though, the affable assistant coach continued his work of affecting the lives of his former students and current players.

Through the work of some dedicated people, Kitchell was able to watch an online broadcast of last Friday's game. When frequency problems caused an occasional drop in coverage, Brian Kitchell kept his dad in contact through text messages to the stadium.

"We got one that said Coach K wants you to onside kick to start the second half, so we did it," said Hall. "It was an awesome kick and the kids did a great job of coverage and it was just an amazing thing to witness."

"Even to the very end, the man was coaching and inspiring his team," added Hall. "He was seeing things to do and ways to help. What a great memory to have as one of the last ones with him."

It came as no surprise to legendary former Ashland football coach Jim Nagel that Kitchell was passionate about his Grizzlies to his final breath. Kitchell made an immediate impression on Nagel when he came back to the area in 1983, and Nagel couldn't add him to his staff quickly enough when he finally received a job in the school district a year later.

"He was a guy who brought great charisma, great passion for the game and a great loving and caring nature toward his players," Nagel said of his former assistant. "Really, we established a lot of traditions at Ashland, and he was responsible for the vast majority of those traditions that have been carried over."

The overwhelming sense of family, the team's group meetings and the positive game-night affirmations ... Nagel credited Kitchell with laying that foundation.

It was Kitchell's idea to adorn the team locker room with photos recognizing former players and their accomplishments, and it was Kitchell who nailed up the traditional victory swords after home wins that line the Grizzlies' locker room.

"He took great pride in the locker room in making it become a hallowed ground, you might say," said Nagel. "Sometimes we would even get requests by other coaches and players to show them the locker room. That's how much it had grown in notoriety, and it was due to Dave's work."

In each of Ashland's three state-championship seasons, Kitchell played a prominent role on the sidelines. Partly because of his presence, Nagel said he was able to leave the field and move up to a more comfortable spot in the coach's box atop the grandstand.

"I am not the rah-rah type of guy, I'd rather be up in the booth," said Nagel. "But in order to do that, you've got to have reliable assistants down below who can really lead the team, and Dave was one of those guys."

Hall and Nagel each described Kitchell as a unique leader as an assistant coach, able to scold without undermining the personal bond he developed with his players.

"He could get on them and really get in their face and never offend because those players knew that he loved and cared about them," said Nagel. "That's a rare ability. I've seen a lot of other coaches get in guy's faces and yell at them and challenge them, but Dave did it in such a way that inspired and motivated and got the best out of each player."

The players' love for Kitchell spilled out onto the Walter A. Phillips Field on Sunday as the stadium became somewhat of a beacon for those looking for a place to gather in the wake of the coach's death.

"It started out as a team meeting, but 7:15 rolls around and 100 people were there with the lights on at the field just needing someplace to go," said Hall. "People held hands, coaches talked and players talked and candles outlined the white 'K' the kids had painted in the bear paw on the middle of the field."

There were laughter and tears, moments of joyous reflection and silent reflection.

And there was the knowledge that Kitchell had done exactly what he asked of his players: Finish strong.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com