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Grizzlies have concerns as playoffs begin

As postseason preparation workouts go, the Ashland Grizzlies' last monthhas been little more than a brisk walk that has occasionally required somelight jogging.

The state's top-ranked team has devoured opponents like a teenage boyat an all-you-can-eat buffet, outscoring its last three opponents 176-27.

But the diet has been one of vegetables and soup rather than meat. Allthree opponents -- Klamath Union, South Medford and Crater -- had losingseasons and the trio finished with a combined record of 5-22.

Ashland won't exactly be stepping up to a four-course, meat-and-potatoesdinner in Friday night's Class 4A state playoff opener against Sandy (4-5),either. The Pioneers -- the third seed from the Mount Hood Conference --are one of only two teams in the playoffs with a losing record.

Friday's game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. at Walter A. Phillips Field.

The string of lopsided victories and a less-than-formidable opening-roundopponent don't provide the rigorous schedule on which title contenders sometimesneed to feed.

It's got to concern any coach because you don't know how you aregoing to be when it comes to responding to adversity, Ashland coachJim Nagel says.

The Southern Oregon Conference champion Grizzlies (9-0) were behind onlytwice all season long -- in the first quarter against Eagle Point on Sept.26 and in the opening minutes of last week's 61-27 throttling of Crater.

Only against Eagle Point was Ashland so much as tied by halftime andthe Grizzlies responded with 14 unanswered points in the third quarter toput that game away. After Crater took a 7-0 lead last week, Ashland tookthe ensuing kickoff back for a score to tie the game -- the first sevenof 33 straight points.

I like the way we've responded, Nagel says. We've respondedto every challenge we've had.

The biggest challenge Sandy presents is running back Adam Hayes, a 6-foot,175-pound senior who gained 1,324 yards and scored 17 touchdowns on 156carries.

Nagel has scouted the speedy back but is confident the Grizzlies canhandle him.

We have been doing pretty well overall defensively, he says.Once you've faced (Mike) Cory from Roseburg, you feel like you'vefaced pone of the best in the state. We'll have to do similar things thatwe did to contain him -- gang tackling and not giving up the big play.

Injuries -- both actual and potential -- are among Ashland's concernsheading into Friday's game.

Starting defensive tackle Matt Webb -- one of the SOC's top defensivelinemen -- will sit out Friday's game with an ankle injury. Nagel said Webbcould play in an emergency situation and should be ready for the secondround should the Grizzlies advance. Forest Mennano will start Friday atdefensive tackle.

Quarterback is another area of concern. Starter Erik Nagel is healthy,but Ashland has lost both its second- and third-string passers in recentweeks.

Backup quarterback and starting linebacker Elijah Jordan broke a bonein his foot Monday night. After football practice, Jordan jumped into abasketball practice drill and -- within two minutes -- hurt his foot, Nagelsays.

Starting junior varsity quarterback Jimmy Werbin -- the varsity thirdstringer -- suffered a dislocated shoulder in a game two weeks ago.

That leaves sophomore Zach Hasell, who has taken only about 20 snapsin varsity games. Now he's a play away from taking over the Grizzlies' high-poweredpassing attack.

That's probably our No. — concern, Nagel says of the lackof an experienced backup.

The younger Nagel's chances of injury are higher than many quarterbacksbecause he is also a standout linebacker for Ashland. Coach Nagel says theloss of Jordan on the defensive side -- and Erik's crucial role on the defense-- leave him no real option but to allow his son to continue playing bothways.

On the positive side, leading rusher Ben Ross' groin injury has continuedto improve.

It's been pretty good for him lately and hopefully it will be 100percent, Nagel says.

As far as letdowns go, Nagel says he isn't too concerned about one againstSandy.

I don't think it'll be too difficult to get them cranked up,he says. Usually, the first round of playoffs are pretty good emotionally.We haven't really spent a lot of time talking about what their record is.We've been telling them it's sudden death. Play a bad game and you are out.

CLACKAMAS AT GRANTS PASS -- Grants Pass coach Tom Blanchard is bankingon size to overcome speed in his team's first-round matchup at Mel IngramField with Clackamas, a 5-4 team from the Three Rivers League.

The Cavaliers make this first playoff appearance in eight seasons --and needed to win a three-way Kansas Plan playoff to earn it. Running backDerek Earls, a 6-2, 225-pound junior, gained 824 yards and scored on sixof his 164 carries.

Earls leads small, but speedy group of skill players that has Blanchardconcerned. A lack of team speed is perhaps Grants Pass' biggest weakness.

Their team speed has us nervous, he says. We can'tget big-played. We know what hurts us and that might be one of their strengths.We are going to have to control that.

Rather than change their scheme to counter Clackamas' speed, the seventh-rankedCavemen (7-2) have been working on taking good pursuit angles and funnelingopponents to the middle where they can gang-tackle them.

Grants Pass plans to vary their offensive attack more than they haveduring the season to take advantage of Clackamas' aggressive, gambling defense.

We are going to be aware of that, Blanchard says. Wewill probably throw more on first down and use more misdirection. We justdon't what them to be able to turn loose in an obvious situation.

The passing combination of Trent Thompson to Kasey Stewart has been dangerousall season long and Blanchard is confident the Cavemen can move the ballwith the passing attack against Clackamas.

Blanchard also said Grants Pass' offensive line has a size advantageof 20-30 pounds per player, something he hopes to exploit with the helpof Brian Howard, the SOC's only 1,000-yard rusher.

ROSEBURG AT DALLAS -- Injuries are the big issue surrounding the two-timedefending state champion Indians as they open their title defense.

I've never had so many injuries, Roseburg coach Thurman Bellsays.

Star running back Mike Cory is still showing some ill effects of an ankleinjury suffered Oct. 10 against South Medford. The speedy senior playeda half of last week's 68-8 rout of Mazama, gaining 162 yards on 14 carries.Despite the solid outing, Bell says Cory's ankle is only at about 90 percentstrength.

The bigger concern is fullback/linebacker Tyler Picknell, who injuredhis knee against Ashland on Oct. — and will have surgery as soon as theseason ends. Still, Picknell will make his first start on both sides ofthe ball since the injury.

Tight end and defensive back Dan Corbin has also been slowed by an ankleinjury.

Bell replaced junior quarterback Thys Kuitert with Kevin Linderman inthe starting lineup for last week's game and says Linderman will also startagainst Dallas. The sophomore completed 3-of-7 passes for 108 yards againstMazama.

Dallas (6-3) is a physical team that runs a ball-control offense centingaround running back Jeremy Filippone.

They try to dominate the football, Bell said. We justneed to get on the scoreboard and make them open it up. You don't want tofall behind because then they play keepaway.

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