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A grand day for Grizz

Ashland battles to 29-23 OT win for state crown

ASHLAND -- Down, but not out.

Half dead, but not buried.

Up a creek, with the tiniest of paddles.

Maybe they were destined to win the state championship, but the Ashland Grizzlies sure know how to make a football game dramatic.

Jay Kuester gathered in a 28-yard touchdown pass from Jimmy Werbin at the end of the first overtime, culminating an incredible comeback and boosting the Grizzlies to a heart-stopping, 29-23 victory over Roseburg in the Class 4A title game at Autzen Stadium on Saturday.

The victory capped a 14-0 season for the Grizzlies, who weren't even projected to win the Southern Oregon Conference championship, let alone their third state crown in nine years under Jim Nagel.

This game wasn't much different from the others this season -- close and right down to the wire, Nagel said in a boisterous Grizzly locker room. We didn't look very good at times, and we were behind most of the game, but these kids found a way to pull a win out of the hat one last time.

And it only seemed fitting that Saturday's Houdini was Kuester, the Grizzlies' sure-handed senior who one week earlier caught the winning touchdown pass in overtime against Jesuit.

Faced with a third-and-13 play from the Roseburg 28-yard line, Werbin found Kuester cutting to the right side of the end zone and fired a perfect pass that Kuester cradled, setting off a wild celebration at the east end of the stadium.

Reserve players, coaches and dozens of Ashland High students stormed the field and piled on top of Kuester and the rest of the Grizzly offense.

That was one big dog pile and I could hardly breath, but God, I loved it! gushed Kuester, who finished the game with six receptions for 159 yards and two TDs. That's a moment I will never forget.

Roseburg got the ball first in the Kansas Plan overtime, which allows each team to begin play at the opponent's 25. But the Indians saw their opportunity to score first vanish when sophomore tailback Conway Bixby bobbled and then dropped a fourth-down pass that would have given them a first down at the Grizzly 10.

We had a chance to put them away and didn't, weary-looking Roseburg coach Thurman Bell said. They did a super job of coming back, and they made the most of their second chances.

The second chances Bell referred to were two costly pass interference penalties and a face mask penalty that helped the Grizzlies rally from a 23-10 deficit in the game's final 14 minutes.

The final infraction was especially pivotal.

Trailing 23-16, the Grizzlies gained possession at the Roseburg 41 with 1:37 remaining in regulation. On the first play from scrimmage, Werbin threw deep and into double coverage, and the ball was intercepted.

But one of the Indians was called for holding Kuester -- Werbin's intended target -- and the Grizzlies got new life at the Roseburg 31.

That ball was up for grabs and everyone was going for it, Bell said. We make the interception and then they get the call.

Hey, Ashland played its guts out and deserves a lot of credit, but that (penalty) was tough.

Werbin hit tight end Austin Mason on a crossing pattern for 11 yards to the Roseburg 20. Then, after Ashland was whistled for its fifth delay-of-game penalty, Werbin hooked up with Joel Smith for the tying touchdown on a screen pass.

The Grizzlies still needed the extra point kick from Sean Schorovsky to knot the game at 23, and he was true to the task.

On his TD, Smith picked up a wall of blockers on the touchdown and made a nifty stop-and-go move to elude a would-be tackler.

I was in an ace-back set, I swung out to the sideline and the whole line fanned out with me, Smith said. Every team in our conference knows that play, but they (Indians) were so concerned about Kuester I think they forgot about me. Jay ran across the middle and that cleared things out.

I got a nice block from Ryan Goodman, ducked to the inside and it was pay dirt.

The Grizzlies' most impressive drive came after Roseburg quarterback Kevin Linderman put the Indians up 23-10 with a 10-yard scramble at 7:35 of the third.

Starting from their own 18, the Grizzlies needed 16 plays to move 82 yards against the Indians' stubborn defense.

Along the way, Ashland benefited from another Roseburg pass interference penalty and a face mask penalty. However, the Grizzlies also made some big plays, the biggest of which came on a fourth-and-seven play at the Roseburg 12. Werbin was flushed out of the pocket, rolled to his right and fired a bullet to Smith at the 4. Smith was belted just after the ball arrived, but the 5-foot-11, 200-pound fullback hung on, giving the Grizz a crucial first down.

Smith gained three yards on the following play and then plowed into the end zone from the 1.

Schorovsky's PAT attempt hit the left upright and bounced back, but the Grizzlies had moved to within 23-16 with 2:15 left in the third period.

Roseburg dominated play much of the first half. The Indians took the opening kickoff and put together a well-executed, 75-yard, 12-play drive that ended in fullback Paul Bodenhamer scoring from — yard out.

The Indians also scored near the end of the first half when Linderman hooked up with tight end Pat Anderson on a 9-yard pass play.

Ashland floundered much of the first half, managing only six first downs, incurring three delay-of-game penalties and snapping the ball over Mason's head when he was back to punt.

But the Grizzlies trailed only 17-10 at the break, thanks mostly to a 74-yard touchdown connection involving -- who else? -- Werbin and Kuester.

Kuester raced up the left sideline past Roseburg cornerback Ryan Morrison, and Werbin hit his main man in stride for the touchdown.

I did a little juke to the inside and then just went as hard as I could up the sideline, Kuester said. And Jimmy laid the ball out there beautifully.

That score tied the game at 10, and the Grizzlies would fall behind once more.

Down, but not out.

It doesn't matter who's ahead at the half, or at the end of the third quarter, Smith said. It's who's ahead at the end.

And just to make sure everyone got their money's worth, the Grizzlies worked overtime.

Ashland receiver Jay Kuester, right, is mobbed by his teammates after scoring the winning touchdown in overtime and sealing the state title. - Photo by Andy Atkinson