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Tribe can expect a Hassell in 4A championship tilt

Ashland seeks third state crown

ASHLAND -- Zach Hassell was as obscure as a spider on a dark wall when the high school football season kicked off in September.

Now he's as conspicuous as an elephant in a pup tent.

That's what happens when you throw the winning touchdown pass in a state playoff game.

Hassell, a backup linebacker and quarterback when the season began, could be in the starting lineup when Ashland meets Roseburg at noon Saturday in the Class 4A state championship game in Eugene.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound junior will definitely be in the mix at inside linebacker, where he has blossomed into one of Ashland's premier defensive players. And he'll be taking the snaps behind center if a shoulder injury prevents regular quarterback Jimmy Werbin from taking the field at Autzen Stadium.

Werbin didn't practice early in the week and remains questionable for Saturday's contest with a slight shoulder separation.

It's exciting, Hassell says of the possibility of playing both positions in the biggest game of his life. It's very exciting, but also a little scary knowing that the whole season is on the line.

Hassell became part of Ashland football folklore last Saturday when he took over for the ailing Werbin and fired a 28-yard touchdown pass to Jay Kuester that lifted the Grizzlies to a scintillating 21-14 overtime win over Jesuit.

In the time it takes to adjust your binoculars, Hassell went from the shadows to the spotlight, from being a bit player to being Leonardo Dicaprio.

Turn on your TV tonight and you just might see the handsome lad -- Hassell, that is -- sitting alongside Jay Leno or David Letterman.

Not that he's seeking attention. A humble sort, Hassell simply wants to help the Grizzlies win their third state championship in the past nine seasons.

He knows he's no Brett Favre. Or Jimmy Werbin, for that matter.

I'm really not the kind of guy you'd expect to throw the winning touchdown pass, says Hassell, who has been inundated with compliments at school all week, some of them coming from students he doesn't even know. I've played quarterback since the seventh grade, but I think of myself more as a defensive player. Defense is my first love. I'd much rather be the hitter than the hittee.

Hassell was a backup on both sides of the ball when the Grizzlies opened their season on Sept. 4 against Hermiston. But he was one of the first players off the bench on defense, and following a spectacular performance against North Medford on Sept. 25, he's been in the starting lineup ever since.

Zach has done a great job on defense, Ashland coach Jim Nagel says. He pursues well, tackles well and is getting better and better as a pass defender.

He was one of our top five point-getters in conditioning and the weight room last summer. The added strength and speed is really paying off.

Despite the slow start, Hassell leads the Grizzlies in tackles with 91, including 42 unassisted stops. He also has seven tackles for losses, including three sacks.

And although Hassell's passing stats are practically nil at the varsity level (he's 3-of-5 for 41 yards), he played one period of junior varsity ball at quarterback throughout the season.

Players are entitled to five periods per week.

It was a lot of fun playing quarterback on JVs - the intensity level isn't as high and there's not as much pressure to win, Hassell says. On the other hand, I could never really get into a rhythm. I'd just be getting warmed up and then my quarter would be over and I'd have to come out.

If Hassell is calling signals Saturday, the Grizzlies are likely to alter their offense to take advantage of his running skills.

Option plays, quarterback draws, bootlegs, that sort of stuff.

I'm never going to win any style points for my passing, Hassell says. I don't have a real strong arm and I'm lucky to throw a spiral.

But to a man, the Grizzlies will tell you they're lucky to have a backup QB who can step into the huddle and win a big game.

Junior quarterback Zach Hassell barks out a snap count in Wednesday's practice.