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Grizzlies may look to the air

The Ashland High team of the past that this year's Grizzlies are most often compared to is the 1998 state championship squad affectionately nicknamed "the Smurfs."

But that comparison has more to do with a shared flare for the dramatic than style of play. That could change Saturday, when third-ranked Ashland (11-0) and its run-oriented offense will be tempted to look to the air against fourth-ranked Glencoe (9-2) and its 3-5, blitz-happy defense in the OSAA Class 5A state quarterfinals.

A one-game Smurf revival? In the playoffs? According to Ashland head coach Charlie Hall, that may be the Grizzlies' best bet.

"There will be some pressure in there so we'll have to be able to handle it," Hall said during Wednesday's practice, held at Spiegelberg Stadium in Medford to help prepare the Grizzlies for the artificial surface at Hare Field. "We're going to need to have our passing game on against them because the nature of that defense really causes problems against the run. I think our protections are simple enough to be able to block some of those things. I hope if they beat us, they just beat us man-to-man, which I don't think they can do."

Kickoff is scheduled for — p.m. at Hillsboro, where the forecast calls for rain.

Ashland's counter to Glencoe's 'D' probably means more responsibility for Ashland quarterback Matt Dierks, who's completed 62 percent of his passes for 1,493 yards and 22 touchdowns. Dierks hasn't been asked to carry the load much this season, but if the line holds up against Glencoe's speedy pass rush his ability to find the open receiver will be paramount. When and if that happens, the Grizzlies expect advantages.

"They usually blitz one side, at least one guy, so it should open up a lot of passing," Dierks said.

Added Hall: "I like the matchups on the perimeter with our receivers."

When Glencoe has the ball, the Crimson Tide will almost always put the ball into the hands of state player-of-the-year candidate David Puckett, a 5-foot-9, 165-pound running back whose gaudy statistics dwarf all others at his position: eight yards per rush, 214 per game, 2,357 on the season and 23 touchdowns.

Puckett isn't overpowering, but he's as quick as anybody Ashland has faced, he's elusive, he's got great vision and he runs behind a fantastic offensive line that's played together all season.

"The line has done a great job of giving (Puckett) the first four or five yards and if we can do that, he's pretty good beyond that," Glencoe head coach Tim Duvall said.

"I've never seen a team that just runs the ball to one guy," Ashland senior linebacker Josh Scarminach said. "I think we're just going to have to fly around and break down when he comes at us."

While the Grizzlies will be watching out for the occasional play-action pass, Hall says Glencoe is less interested in fooling teams than it is in out-executing them one run at a time. It's a strategy that has worked out well for Puckett and company. The Crimson Tide is chewing up 392 yards per game, 304.8 on the ground.

"They're very disciplined in their approach," Hall said, "they run the same plays over and over. Like five plays, they just get better and better at them. They change up the formations a little bit to kind of mix up the perception, but for the most part they run the same things and they're pretty good at it."

When Glenoe goes to the air, it's far less effective. Quarterback AJ Burke has completed 52 percent of his passes for 866 yards, 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. His top targets are wide receiver Jordan Hoffert (5-10, 165) and tight end Matt Valley (6-1, 180). Hoffert has 22 receptions for 323 yards and four touchdowns and Valley has 17 catches for 334 yards and six scores.

Ashland's top two receivers, Charlie Sebrell and Josh Hogeland, have combined for 59 catches, 911 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. Of course, that didn't come against Glencoe's defense, which is allowing just 104 passing yards and 118 rushing yards per game.

The key for Ashland then, says Hall, is to force the Crimson Tide to "play left-handed" &

that is, to pass the ball. To do that, the Grizzlies will probably have control the clock. And to do that, they'll probably have to get their "Smurf" on.

"It should be a fun night," Dierks said.

The game will be played less than a week after the death of Dave Kitchell, Ashland's longtime defensive coordinator who lost his five-year battle with cancer early Sunday morning. The presence of the popular coach still surrounds the team: the Grizzlies break every huddle with a resounding "KITCHELL," attached "K" stickers to their helmets and wrote giant K's on the backs of their practice jerseys. They mourned the loss together most of Sunday at Phillips Field, and the official memorial service is scheduled for this Sunday, also at Phillips Field.

"There's been a lot of healing going on," Hall said. "Not an hour goes by without thinking about coach K. Hopefully, it isn't to the point Saturday where we're emotionally drained because of the whole process. It's my job to make sure that it's the other way, that they're inspired by it."

Sports editor can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.