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Grizzlies face Hermiston, 500-mile journey

A year ago at this time the Ashland Grizzlies football team climbed into a jet plane and touched down in Japan eight hours later for their opening game of the season.

Today, the Grizzlies climb into a bus and head for Hermiston, where, following a stopover in Portland, they'll meet the Bulldogs in their season opener on Friday night.

The bus trip is expected to take the better part of nine hours and cover 475 miles -- and that doesn't count the journey home.

If nothing else, the Grizzlies can say they're miles ahead of most teams before the ball is first snapped.

Coach Jim Nagel didn't plan for such a long trek this year. But when Mazama dropped out of the Southern Oregon Conference the Grizzlies needed to pick up another game. Nagel, the Ashland athletic director, tried to schedule a game closer to home, but nothing worked out.

We thought we could get a game against a Northern California school, but their state high school association is demanding they play in a jamboree this weekend, Nagel said. And we thought we could match up against Marshfield, but North Medford ended up with them on their schedule.

So we kept looking, and about the only 4A school that had an open date was Hermiston.

In other games involving local teams Friday, Phoenix plays host to Yreka and Grants Pass takes on Central Catholic at Civic Stadium in Portland.

Hermiston, 28 miles west of Pendleton along Interstate 84, is perhaps best known for lying just seven miles from a chemical depot, where nerve gas and other deadly components are stored.

Visiting football teams have traditionally feared the underground chemicals more than the Bulldogs, who have made the state playoffs only once in school history.

But the Hermiston faithful have reason to be optimistic. Fifteen of 22 starting positions are intact from a year ago, when the Bulldogs went 6-3 and just missed the playoffs.

Hermiston's hopes are further buoyed by coach Ray Braun, who took the school to its only playoff berth in 1991, headed to Redmond High for a few years and then returned to the Eastern Oregon school.

The Bulldogs were woeful in Braun's absence, but perked right back up upon his return last season.

When I left Redmond I was ready to retire and thought I had retired, said Braun, a former assistant coach at Oregon State who served in the Craig Fertig and Joe Avezzano regimes. But the people at Hermiston caught wind of it and asked me back.

It's a very supportive and appreciative community. They'll pack the stadium on Friday night.

Leading the Bulldogs is quarterback Brent Mayberry, a second-team all-conference performer in the Intermountain Conference last season. Braun is also high on Thad White, a 6-foot, 218-pound senior who stars at fullback and defensive end.

He can lean on some people, Braun said.

The Bulldogs should be especially strong on defense, where they return eight starters.

Ashland, meanwhile, must replace nine starters on offense and 10 on defense from last season's team that finished 10-1 and was ranked No. — most of the year.

The Grizzlies, however, have been to the playoffs 13 straight years and always find a way to win under coach Jim Nagel, who boasts of a 137-39 career mark with the Grizz.

One of Nagel's trademarks has been to put a standout quarterback on the field and this season will be no exception. Jimmy Werbin will be seeing his first extensive duty at the varsity level on Friday but the 6-foot-1, 180-pound senior has looked razor-sharp during the preseason.

He's further along than I thought he'd be, Nagel said. He had a good summer throwing the ball and he's looked very sharp in practice the last two weeks. He understands our offense and he's matured a lot over the last year.

I'd be surprised if he didn't have a good season.

Small but speedy Gabe Stevens and Jay Kuester have emerged as the Grizzlies' starting wide receivers, while another speedster, Chris Pavilionis, has taken over at running back.

What worries Nagel is that two of his veterans -- offensive tackle/defensive end Nick Bakke and tight end/linebacker Austin Mason -- are nursing injuries. Bakke has tendinitis in his foot while Mason suffered a concussion during practice.

Both are expected to be in the lineup Friday, however.

While the Grizzlies will have virtually all new faces on defense, one player who has caught the coaches' attention is sophomore inside linebacker Ben Holtey.

He's doing all the right things as far as technique and carrying out his assignments, Nagel said. We knew he had some ability but for a sophomore he's doing a great job.

YREKA AT PHOENIX --The Pirates beat Yreka 14-6 in their opener last season but must replace 19 of 22 starting positions.

The Pirates will lean heavily on a swift, hard-hitting defense anchored by 5-foot-11, 205-pound linebacker Chris Valavala and defensive backs Nick Metcalf, Brandon Lillis and Theron Hull.

GRANTS PASS AT CENTRAL CATHOLIC -- The Cavemen have been to the playoffs seven times in the last 10 years but look to be rebuilding under veteran coach Tom Blanchard.

Central Catholic of the Mount Hood Conference is coming off a 2-7 season.