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The pressure's on

Ashland High School football players were running a series of 80-yard dashes in 93-degree heat Tuesday. But that's not the hardest activity they face.

They also need to raise $120,000 to compete in Osaka, Japan, next summer and break a 6-6 tie in a competition that started so long ago that a lineman on the 1990 team is now the dad of a player on the field.

The Grizzlies are willing to go to great lengths — do your dreaded weeding or even move your belongings — to earn money for the trip.

They can raise $8,000 this Saturday, Aug. 11, if 300 or more people show up for a sales-pitch-free test drive of a car at Butler Ford.

"It's a no-cost way to support the team," says MaryAnn Cowan, who has been helping the team raise money to compete in the biennial Pacific Rim Bowl since 2007, when her eldest son Dan played the Japanese All Stars here. Two years later, her son Sam played in Japan, and son Seth hopes to play in Osaka in the 2013 game.

Last year's game at Walter A. Phillips Field was Ashland's first win over Japan since 1999 and evened the 12-game series.

So the pressure's on to send 60 players across the Pacific.

Team members also are earning money by selling $20 Grizz Cards that allow for discounts at 20 Ashland stores, eateries and sports activities, from $10 off a car lube or a free golf cart rental, to free cheese sticks or 25 percent off yogurt.

Over the past few weeks, clumps of players have been showing up outside grocery stores, hoping to sell their quota of cards. If a player sells 100, he has earned enough to pay his way to play.

Recently, Seth Cowan, a sophomore, was outside of Albertsons in Ashland giving a sales pitch to people about the benefits of the discount card. Nearby were teammates junior Cody Eisenberg, junior Mason Montgomery and his brother Max Montgomery, a sophomore.

"Seth is doing well selling the cards," says MaryAnn Cowan, "but each kid is so different. My other son Sam is not a salesman, but he's a hard worker. He didn't sell his quota of Grizz Cards, but he worked for neighbors to earn money. There are other kids who would rather sling a sledgehammer than sell a card."

Those players can work over the next 11 months to earn money for the Pacific Rim Bowl game through the Rent-a-Player program.

People can call 541-414-7037 to hire players at a suggested donation of $10 each per hour, no minimum. The Ashland Football Club receives the donations and funnels them to the Pacific Rim Bowl XIII fund.

"You wouldn't want them polishing your fine china, but if you need muscle power, they're great," says Cowan. "They roll their eyes at gardening, even though they will still do it, but they love moving jobs, hauling stuff and digging up star thistle, anything that requires strong muscles."

To build stamina on the job and on the field, players are enduring daily workout sessions.

In the small high school gym on Tuesday, Head Coach Charlie Hall was bellowing commands to already sweaty players. For pushups, they were divided into groups of three and they linked their feet to another player's shoulders. They then had to push themselves off the floor with the added weight of the other two players.

"That teaches them teamwork and endurance," said Hall, who played football at Southern Oregon University under Coach Chuck Mills and became the AHS head coach in May 2005. Two months later, he attended his first Pacific Rim Bowl game in Kobe, Japan.

The pushup drill was followed by thundering noise as 30 teenage boys whipped jump ropes over their heads like lassos, lifted their sneakered feet up, then crashed down on the wood gym floor, seemingly trying to be as loud as possible.

Coach Hall blew his whistle and the boys were directed into the weight room to continue their strength training with the other coaches and adult volunteers.

One of them was Chip Layton (class of 1991), who was a 245-pound offensive and defensive tackle when he played in the 1990 Pacific Rim Bowl game in Ashland. Now, the owner of X-Plosive Fitness in Ashland is helping his son Parker (class of 2015) compete in the July 27, 2013, game in Japan. The 180-pound sophomore plays quarterback, tight end, linebacker and safety.

Coach Hall sees the Laytons as another example of the "vitality and strength" of the Pacific Rim Bowl program. He then gave the history of this unique cultural exchange and football game.

Hall says Mills, his former SOU coach, is called the "father of modern Japanese football" because he arranged for the first U.S. college football team — Utah State University — to play Japanese collegiate players in 1971.

In 1985, Mills took his SOU team to Osaka. The next year, players for Kwansei Gakuin University played at Raider Stadium and Sports Illustrated covered the story (read "Shoguns Of The Shotgun" at www.dailytidings.com/chuckmills).

One of Kwansei Gakuin University's alumni, Akira Furukawa, who was the chairman of the American Football Association (Western Conference), attended a game in the 1980s and wanted a similar matchup between high school players. He and Ashland High School Head Coach Jim Nagel worked out arrangements, and in 1988, the varsity football team went to Osaka for the first Pacific Rim Bowl.

Then as now, the games introduce players to other student-athletes and represent football's values of giving maximum effort and showing sportsman-like behavior on and off the field, Hall says.

"It's now a part of our culture," he adds. "It's so important to have a tradition like this."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.