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It's unwise to count out Nagel's Grizz

There are two lessons we should have learned from last week's miracle at Autzen Stadium in Eugene.

No. 1, it wasn't a miracle. No. 2, no one should ever count out Ashland High football coach Jim Nagel.

And, yes, the two are related.

Nagel's Grizzlies were out-sized and out-talented in their matchup against Jesuit, a team that was so loaded that it resembled a small-college squad.

In the Jesuit backfield was Matt Floberg, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior fullback who is being recruited by a host of Division I colleges. Nagel remarked after the game that Floberg is probably faster than anyone on the Ashland team, and he wasn't kidding.

In the Ashland backfield was Kris Pavilionis, a 5-foot-7, 150-pound junior who looked like a Pop Warner player alongside his bigger, faster counterpart.

Jesuit's best wide receiver was Brandon Miller, a 6-2, 200-pounder who showed his strength and speed when he caught a pass over the middle, broke a couple of tackles and rambled 35 yards for the tying touchdown late in the fourth period.

Ashland's best wideout was Jay Kuester, who is a couple of inches taller than Pavilionis but no heavier.

If you were to line up all of the Grizzlies and all of the Jesuit players and conduct a draft, probably seven of the first 10 players selected would be from the Portland school.

And yet the Grizzlies, whose motto this season has been whatever it takes, found a way to squeeze out a 21-14 overtime victory and earn a berth in Saturday's state championship game against Southern Oregon Conference rival Roseburg.

What made the semifinals win over Jesuit miraculous -- oops, let's say remarkable -- is that the Grizzlies had to play the final four minutes of regulation and the overtime without starting quarterback Jimmy Werbin, who suffered a separated shoulder.

On Ashland's next-to-last drive in the fourth period, Floberg had blitzed and belted Werbin to the turf.

He landed on me pretty hard, Werbin said as he rubbed his sore shoulder after the game. It wasn't anything dirty; he's just a big guy and my shoulder got driven into the turf.

I didn't think it was that bad at first, just a stinger that would go away in a few minutes. But when I went to the sidelines and tried to throw, it hurt a lot. At that point, I knew I was trouble.

Werbin re-entered the game for the Grizzlies' final possession of regulation play only because Nagel was afraid backup quarterback Zach Hassell might fumble the snap. Hasell, who has developed into one of Ashland's best defensive players at inside linebacker, needed to take some snaps along the sideline on the cold, rainy afternoon, Nagel reckoned.

And that wasn't going to happen until just before the overtime, Nagel said.

What Hassell did in the OT -- lofting a 28-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to Jay Kuester -- will go down as one of the greatest moments in Ashland High sports history.

It wasn't a very good spiral, but I got it to the right spot and Kuester caught it, Hassell said. That might have been the last play I would have picked -- me throwing the ball deep -- but it was fourth down and we needed the touchdown.

Now it's on to the state championship game, where Ashland will meet a Roseburg team that has won eight straight games -- most of them by wide margins -- since a 35-21 loss to the Grizzlies on Oct. 9.

With their starting quarterback questionable and the opponent extra formidable, can the Grizzlies add one more improbable chapter to their storybook season?

Werbin might play Saturday, but is being held out of practice until Thursday.

It's a first-degree separation, which means the gap isn't substantial, Nagel said Tuesday. But Jimmy won't do anything until Thursday. He's still got some swelling and some soreness.

For now, Nagel is planning on playing Hassell at quarterback Saturday, and you can bet the Grizzlies will rally behind him.

I don't know if anything can shake up this group, Nagel said. Last year, we had some guys who lived, ate and breathed football, but these kids are different.

They're more apt to be talking about the best movie in town or the hottest CD to hit the charts, and then on Saturday they're like, oh yeah, we've got another football game.

It's not that they lack focus. They just have other interests.

In other words, they haven't put undo pressure on themselves. Or been intimidated by big, physical teams that seemingly should push them all over the field.

(Don Hunt is a Mail Tribune sports writer. He can be reached at 776-4469.)