ASHLAND — In an interview with the Tidings in 2004, Ashland High assistant football coach Dave Kitchell explained his philosophy on dealing with cancer.

ASHLAND — In an interview with the Tidings in 2004, Ashland High assistant football coach Dave Kitchell explained his philosophy on dealing with cancer.

"I don't want cancer to rule my life, even though it's a part of me," Kitchell said. "I want to try and have some decision in it.

"You can't cry about it. You just have to keep going."

Those words took on new meaning Monday as the Grizzlies took the field for their first practice since learning of Kitchell's death early Sunday morning. The man who orchestrated the defenses of three state championship teams over the course of more than two decades at Ashland, touching the lives of thousands in the process, finally succumbed to the disease that first entered his life five years prior.

He was 51.

The news stunned even those who were aware of the dire prognosis. Kitchell helped come up with the game plan for Friday's playoff game against Corvallis and even watched the game online via a live video feed. Ashland won 14-7 to earn a quarterfinal date with Glencoe on Saturday.

After learning of Kitchell's death, Ashland head coach Charlie Hall organized a team get-together Sunday night. The mourning started before then. All day, players and community members alike made their way to Phillips Field to pay tribute. They lit candles and placed them in the shape of a "K" at midfield. Flowers were placed there, too, as was a Grizzly flag. Then everyone held hands and formed a circle that nearly enclosed the entire field. It turned into an impromptu memorial service.

"Some people said some things, and just took a moment to kind of remember him," said Ashland offensive lineman Matt Lipski, who was the first player to show up Sunday morning. "It was a surprise to me."

The flag and flowers were still at midfield as the Grizzlies made their way out to the practice field Monday afternoon. One player took a knee there and bowed his head. Most looked over as they passed. And the usual pre-practice banter seemed to be turned down a notch or two.

Just before practice began, Hall was approached by Ashland Booster Club director Charlie Neumann, who had brought a poem he felt spoke to Kitchell's influence. Then, after a brief team talk, the Grizzlies got back to work.

"I think for a lot of us, getting back on the field will be a good thing," Lipski said.

Sunday's gathering and Monday's mood shed light on Kitchell's massive influence. His fiery speeches personified Ashland's role as the perpetual underdog as the school routinely mowed down larger programs throughout the 1990s.

After home wins, he hammered the tradition victory swords into the locker room wall as players chanted "nail it, nail it". His last nail was hammered in after Ashland's 15-8 win over Klamath Union on Oct. 19, a comeback that clinched the team's first playoff berth since 2000.

Hall talked of Kitchell's presence during Friday's emotional postgame speech. On Monday, Hall and assistant coach Stan Gida said Kitchell's influence goes far beyond the gridiron.

"He taught discipline, integrity, toughness, old school values," said Gida, who joined the program in the early 90s. "I've got to use a quote for Kitchell: 'In matters of style, bend like the reed, in matters of principle, stand like the rock.' That's how I best sum him up. He was a consummate man's man."

"My level of respect, I really can't put a tape measure on it," he added. "Guys like him don't come around very often and I was lucky to know him. I was lucky to be around him."

Gida went on to describe how everyone is dealing with the loss in their own way, some behind closed doors and some not. The former NFL offensive lineman also described his own moment of private mourning: he broke down in the Grizzly locker room Sunday night.

"We've all had to come to grips with it and it's going to take some time," he said.

But time isn't something the Grizzlies (11-0) have a lot of when it comes to preparing for Glencoe (9-2), the No. 4-ranked team in the state. The Northwest Oregon Conference champion beat Churchill 23-16 last week and enters the game on an eight-game winning streak.

How will the Grizzlies get fired up for a game only days after Kitchell's passing? Hall says that's something the team will hopefully find out together.

"It basically comes down to 'What would coach K want you to do,'" he said. "They know that with that in mind, they can re-focus and get back to work. I'm sure it'll be hard at times, but we'll do the best that we can."

Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 482-3456, ext. 224, or joe.zavala@dailytidings.com