ASHLAND — Bleary-eyed and a little out of sorts only minutes after his return trip from the other side of the world finally reached its destination, Lucas Stone could have kissed the ground in front of Ashland High School.

ASHLAND — Bleary-eyed and a little out of sorts only minutes after his return trip from the other side of the world finally reached its destination, Lucas Stone could have kissed the ground in front of Ashland High School.

"It's so nice," he said, his voice wavering after more than 24 hours without sleep. "Everybody's happy to be home."

The senior-to-be wide receiver and his Ashland High football teammates were greeted by a throng of family and friends holding "Welcome Home" and "Go Grizzlies" signs Tuesday night, capping a whirlwind nine-day road trip to Japan for Pacific Rim Bowl XI. While the game turned out to be somewhat of a letdown — Ashland struggled in the red zone and lost to the Japan All-Stars 20-0 — the Grizzlies used words like "awesome" and "moving" to describe what they saw and who they met while representing Ashland in Osaka, Hiroshima and Kyoto.

Ashland junior-to-be running back/linebacker Jackson Volz said he was humbled while visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, where photos and scale models show the destruction caused by the first atomic bomb.

"It was just like rubble, there was nothing left," Volz described. "It didn't just tell me how devastating it was, it was kind of like a world lesson to everybody. It kind of taught the world, 'This is what happens.'"

Ashland's trip also included tours of ancient temples, a pregame banquet that honored former Ashland defensive coordinator Dave Kitchell and, for many, a spontaneous trip on the last day to Universal Studios Japan.

The Grizzlies also got a chance to connect with their opponents by staying with host families.

"That was probably my favorite thing and probably what will stay in my mind," junior-to-be lineman Sam Cowan said. "My host brother, he hung out with us. It was pretty cool like that. We all became pretty good friends with our Japanese host brothers."

Stone agreed.

"Just being able to immerse yourself in their culture, that was one of the huge advantages of having a host family," he said. "Instead of staying in a hotel where you just go with your group and you're always with American people, you have to go and live with Japanese families and eat their food and learn their customs. That was an awesome experience."

Forty-seven players, seven coaches plus a group of 18 parents and boosters made the trip, which began when the team took a bus from Ashland to San Francisco on July 19. Fans and family members who weren't able to travel with the team were able to keep track of its daily adventures through a Facebook account set up and maintained by Gretchen Hartrick, one of several volunteers who organized scores of fundraisers leading up to the trip.

Despite a rough start that included a strep throat scare and a last-minute change in transportation to San Francisco, Ashland coach Charlie Hall said that everything went pretty much according to plan.

"I look at the things that our kids engaged in, the things they ate, the way they talk to their players ... and that was really cool," he said.

Hall said Japanese organizers went out of their way to honor Kitchell, who died of cancer months after the 2007 Pacific Rim Bow. Players and coaches spoke about Kitchell and his legacy during a pregame barbecue, and the contest was billed locally as "The Dave Kitchell Memorial Pacific Rim Bowl."

"The whole week was really centered around Dave Kitchell," Hall said. "Those (speeches) were very emotional. You saw tears in a lot of people's eyes, on both sides of the ocean. And then even within our small groups, the coaches talked about Dave and shared stories."

The game itself turned into another victory for the Japanese All-Stars, who have won the last five meetings and now lead the all-time series for the first time, 6-5. Though no statistics were kept, Hall said that the Grizzlies moved the ball in spurts offensively but "had a terrible, terrible time in the red zone."

"I thought we could have played a lot better," he said. "It was a learning experience for us. Jake (Scarminach) kind of got his feet wet as a quarterback under a lot of pressure.

"There were way too many missed assignments and mistakes and missed alignments that caused problems. I'm just frustrated with some of that, but again it's an early game and all those things that we did wrong we can correct."

Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.zavala@dailytidings.com