ASHLAND — Meet Steve Farley — the former Southern Oregon University point guard, the graduate student, the casually-dressed man eating a salad at Northwest Pizza. He's talking about his family, his basketball roots, his relationship with former coaches who influence him still.

ASHLAND — Meet Steve Farley — the former Southern Oregon University point guard, the graduate student, the casually-dressed man eating a salad at Northwest Pizza. He's talking about his family, his basketball roots, his relationship with former coaches who influence him still.

This is the Steve Farley that you don't see on Tuesday and Friday nights. But the other guy is there, too. He leans forward as he talks. He thinks, thinks some more, then answers. He barely touches his food. That's the Steve Farley that the Ashland High girls basketball team has gotten to know over the past several months: meticulous, focused, all business.

It's a persona that has served Farley well. At just 24, Ashland's first-year head coach has guided the Grizzlies through a three-month stretch that ranks among the best in program history. Ashland clinched the Southern Sky Conference championship weeks ago, is ranked No. 2 in the state and enters tonight's playoff game against No. 6 West Albany on a 23-game winning streak.

"I knew that it was a pretty special group of girls," Farley says.

Special or not, Farley's phenomenal debut didn't exactly start that way. Former coach Ken Lathen employed a laid-back coaching style that grew on the Grizzlies during his three-year tenure. The hiring of Farley marked the end of those days, and when he laid down the law early on, it came as a shock to the Grizzlies' system.

That happened "pretty much right off the bat," according to Ashland point guard Allison Gida, who chuckles about it now. "We don't mess around as much."

Junior post Brenna Heater agrees.

"It took a long time for us to get used to his style — I know half the girls still are (adjusting) because he's real intense," Heater says. "He makes us work hard, and we have to or else we have to work even harder. He pushes us in a good way."

Farley, a starter on two national tournament teams at SOU, acknowledges that he can be hard on his players but says that's only because he wants them to succeed on and off the court. It's hard to argue with the results. Besides the winning streak, the Grizzlies have developed fantastic chemistry that seemed out of reach early on, especially among the "big three": Heater, Gida and junior wing Kelsey McKinnis.

More and more, Ashland is thriving under Farley's tough-love approach. He's not surprised. That, after all, was the plan from the beginning.

"One of the things we talked about on the first day when we had our basketball meeting was that once you walk on the floor, it's not girls basketball anymore," Farley says. "We're going to treat you like an athlete, not like a little girl. That was a big adjustment, but they have responded. From the beginning of the season until now, it's just night-and-day difference."

The scoreboard concurs. Ashland (23-2) lost its first two games of the season by a combined 49 points. After that, the Grizzlies went on an impressive run that included wins over Churchill, currently the No. 9-ranked 5A team; North Medford, No. 5 at 6A; and 6A Grants Pass. By the time the SSC season rolled around in early January, Farley had successfully transformed the Grizzlies from free-wheeling, run-and-gun artists into a cerebral, self-contained unit that excelled at controlling tempo.

That was especially the case in Ashland's first big SSC test Jan. 11 against Crater. The Comets were supposed to challenge the Grizzlies for the league title and entered the game fresh off a 49-point shellacking of Eagle Point. But Heater, Gida and McKinnis combined for 39 points, Ashland outscored Crater 25-8 in the middle two quarters and the Grizzlies won, 42-26.

The rest of league play was pretty much an extended instant replay, with Ashland cruising to mostly lopsided victories and finishing 12-0. The perfect run came despite a three-week experiment of sorts during which Farley, acting on the advice of his assistants, loosened the reins a bit. Now, he's back to calling most of the plays himself, a tendency that may reflect his SOU roots (Raider head coach Brian McDermott also runs a tight ship when it comes to controlling the game from the bench).

Indeed, Farley cites McDermott as a major influence, especially his former coach's reliance on scouting reports. McDermott's teams are "always so well prepared" for their next opponent, says Farley, and he's taken that college-level dedication to Ashland High. The Grizzlies seem to appreciate Farley going the extra mile. It doesn't hurt that he's been a student of the game since he decided to be a coach as a high schooler.

"He's very intelligent," Heater said. "I question everyone, I talk back — but I try not to. But I trust him, and I have a hard time trusting people. He knows what he's saying."

And he'll keep saying it, for as long as the Grizzlies are still alive in the season. Their playoff road isn't an easy one, however. If the Grizzlies beat West Albany, their reward will be a possible quarterfinal date with No. 3 Willamette and a possible semifinal matchup with No. 1 Jefferson.

Willamette hammered Ashland 51-26 back on Nov. 28, but Farley points out that the Grizzlies are a different team now.

"They've come miles since the beginning of the year as far as mental toughness," he says.

That likely didn't happen by chance.

"I know everybody says, 'When I stop getting on you, I don't care,' but I really believe that's true," Farley says. "Whether we're down by 30 or up by 30, whether we've lost every game or won every game, I'm not going to stop coaching them."

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