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Hot Tribe, resilient Grizz meet for title

Ashland — (13-0) vs. Roseburg (10-2)

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Kickoff: Noon, Saturday, at Autzen Stadium, Eugene.

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TV: Fox Northwest (Channel 45).

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Radio: KCMX (580-AM).

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Coaches: Ashland's Jim Nagel (13th year, overall record 150-39) and — Roseburg's Thurman Bell (29th year, overall record 223-82-1).

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Fast Fact:Since Nagel took over at Ashland in 1983, he has beaten Bell — 10 of 17 times.

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Last Meeting: Ashland won, 35-21, Oct. 9.

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Ashland QB still a question mark

There they go again, playing for the Class 4A state football championship.

Is anyone surprised?

The Roseburg Indians, who have advanced to the title game seven times in the past 12 years, against the Ashland Grizzlies, who have been on center stage five times over 10 seasons.

I think both teams have come to understand that if you can get out of this (Southern Oregon) conference, then you've got a shot to go all the way, Ashland coach Jim Nagel says.

The unbeaten Grizzlies, who won state titles in 1989 and '91 and were runners-up in '92 and '93, have been the Cinderella team of '98.

Five of their 13 wins have come by a touchdown or less, including last week's 21-14 victory over Jesuit that necessitated overtime. Five other wins have come by two touchdowns, including a 35-21 verdict over Roseburg on Oct. 9.

If ever a bunch of Grizzlies has perfected the act of killing 'em softly, this is the bunch.

Saturday, the Grizzlies will find themselves the underdog for the third time in five playoff games, partly because starting quarterback Jimmy Werbin is nursing a separated shoulder.

Werbin, who suffered the injury late in the fourth period against Jesuit, is expected to start. But he didn't practice until Thursday, and until he winds up and throws the ball Saturday, no one can accurately predict how effective he'll be. Or, for that matter, how long he can stand up against Roseburg's big, bruising defense.

We expect him to go the whole way, Roseburg coach Thurman Bell says.

Werbin has completed 54 percent of his passes for 2,548 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Backup Zach Hassell, who came off the bench to throw the winning touchdown in overtime against Jesuit, is 3-of-5 for 41 yards.

The Indians, meanwhile, have been like a snowball rolling downhill -- gaining strength and momentum -- ever since their loss to Ashland.

Roseburg blasted South Medford, Crater, Grants Pass and Willamette to close the regular season, outscoring that quartet by a margin of 156-6.

In the playoffs, the Indians started off with a 16-0 victory over previously unbeaten and No. 3-ranked Gresham and have followed with wins over Sprague (14-0), Lakeridge (28-14) and Tualatin (37-21).

Why the turnaround?

The return of all-conference strong safety Ryan Poe has been a huge factor in Roseburg's resurgence. Poe suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during summer practice. He still hasn't had surgery and isn't 100 percent, but he makes plays and is the emotional leader of the team.

Along with free safety Dustin Michalik and speedy cornerback Ryan Morrison, the Indians have one of the best defensive backfields in the state.

They've got one of the best defenses, period. Tackle ron Rinaker has been almost impossible to run against, and linebacker Jamie Norton has been all over the field in recent games.

We had a couple of kids miss the Ashland game with injuries and we had a couple of other kids on the bench who should have been out there, says Bell, whose Indians won state titles in 1981, '90, '95 and '96 and were second in '87, '88 and '89. Early on, I did a poor job of coaching.

Offensively, Roseburg is more balanced than usual. Junior quarterback Kevin Linderman has given the Indians a dangerous passing attack, and while they uncharacteristically struggled to mount a ground attack earlier this season, sophomore tailback Conway Bixby and senior fullback Paul Bodenhamer have been off and running in the playoffs.

Both rushed for more than 100 yards in the Indians' victory over Tualatin.

We're not afraid to throw the ball, and I think that's opened up our running game, Bell says. It's nice to have the balance because teams can't load up on the run.

The Grizzlies held Roseburg to 14 points until the waning minutes of their earlier game. They could be hard-pressed to match that effort Saturday.

We respect their passing game, but we've still got to worry about stopping their running game first, Nagel says. They still like to run the veer, and their favorite pass is still play-action.

Ashland's defense is no slouch, either. The Grizzlies' defensive front of Nick Bakke, Tyson George, Ryan Hansen and Steve Cornell is one of the best in the state, and inside linebackers Hassell and Joel Smith are as steady as an ocean breeze.

Each team also has superb place-kickers. Ashland's Sean Schorovsky has made 29 of 34 PATs and three of four field goals, while Roseburg's Ryan Holt has hit three field goals in the playoffs, including a booming 35-yarder last week.

Our kids look at this game as a second chance, Bell says. It's not often that you get to face a team that beat you earlier in the season.