Nearly every key playmaker that helped the Ashland High football team stiff-arm its way to the Class 5A state championship game last fall has moved on, in some cases to college football programs.
But to Ashland head coach Charlie Hall, the players that return give the Grizzlies strength where it really matters, and may ultimately combine with a cadre of up-and-comers to make this season as memorable as last year’s runner-up finish.
“I think we can be as competitive as last year,” said Hall, entering his 11th year as the Grizzlies’ head coach. “It was a little bit of a roller coaster last year, but I think Tucker (Atteberry) gives us that same smart, experienced, competitive quarterback that can win games with both his arm and his feet. He showed that he could do that last year.”
Atteberry, now a senior, came off the bench to lead the Grizzlies to a stunning 35-27 win over Midwestern League rival Springfield in last year’s state quarterfinals, and also clutched up in Ashland’s early-season win over powerhouse Summit. Three months later, the Storm avenged that 15-14 setback with a 45-28 win in the state championship game.
Atteberry enters this season as the no-doubt starter after sharing time last season with Kyle Weinberg, who graduated, and will be protected by an offensive line stacked with three players who started in the 2015 state championship game — senior right guard Kyle Rodden, senior left guard Nick Sanderson and junior center Troy Boyd.
The Ashland offense also returns senior running back Malik Pippa, who didn’t start but saw plenty of playing time last season, senior receiver Nicky Weinberg, who Hall said was as good as any wideout on last year’s receiver-stacked team, and senior tight end McKane Ellis, whose 6-foot-5 frame will give Atteberry an easy-to-see target, especially in the red zone.
“You can’t coach 6-5,” Hall said, comparing Ellis to last year’s tight end, Michael Pruitt. “(Ellis’) done a good job at tight end using his height, getting separation and catching the ball in places where maybe (Pruitt) couldn’t catch but (Ellis) can go up and get it. He’s a tall kid with good hands, he’s getting tougher and hopefully he’ll surprise some people in terms of being physical.”
Ashland’s strength on offense may be its line, but that doesn’t mean the Grizzlies, who averaged 201 yards passing and 165 yards rushing last season, are about to turn all smash mouth.
“We’re a hybrid,” Hall said. “We’re basically zone blockers and pass blockers. If we double team we might get some movement. We’re not going to change a whole lot offensively in our run game — without giving too many secrets out. I think they fit kind of the model of the guys that we’ve had and we’ll be able to continue to do what we’ve been doing offensively.”
Defensively, the Grizzlies will stick with the 3-4 alignment that produced 35 sacks, 13 fumble recoveries and 18 interceptions last season.
Sanderson and Rodden will take turns at nose guard and Ellis, Drake Morey (6-4) and Andrew Stark (6-0) will give the Grizzlies tall “posts” on the ends, which Hall hopes will lead to knocked-down passes.
Sophomore linebacker Myles Montgomery, the younger brother of former Ashland star linebacker Mason Montgomery, is expected to see plenty of playing time next to fellow linebackers Zack Haldane, Kieran Phillips and Troy Boyd. The outside linebackers are Stark, Chad Andrews, who will also be kicking and punting, and Pippa.
A year ago, Mason Dow, who graduated, led a linebacker corps that terrorized opposing quarterbacks. This year, it’s a completely new group and Hall expects growing pains.
“The backer position is another area we need to develop,” he said. “(Pippa) played some corner last year but he’s bulked up quite a bit and I think he can kind of play that Mason Dow role that Mason played at outside linebacker for us (last year). He’s still quick and he’s still physical, so I think that will help shore up the linebacker position.”
Hall loves the athleticism in the defensive backfield, but experience is lacking. Oliver Warren, Anthony Swanson and Isaac Hyatt will be the cornerbacks, while Weinberg, Matt O’Donnell, Aaron Chandler, Atteberry and Swanson will play safety. Weinberg and Atteberry were sensational there last season, but given their prominent roles on offense this time around their playing time on defense will be limited.
“(Weinberg) will play some safety but he needs to get a break,” Hall said. “And (Atteberry), who was a great safety for us last year, will need to probably come off the field most times. But we could use him on third downs or key games. If there’s a big play, we could get him out there to give us better coverage as a nickel.”
Ashland begins its season Friday with a nonleague game against Klamath Union. It will be the Grizzlies’ first game on Walter A. Phillips Field’s new synthetic turf. A week later, the Grizzlies will travel to Bend to face Summit in a rematch that will likely draw interest from across the state.
The Storm features star quarterback John Bledsoe, a senior who passed for 265 yards and two touchdowns in the state championship game and is headed to Northern Arizona on a football scholarship.
Hall’s looking forward to the rematch, which he knows may also be a preview of sorts.
“I think you play a game like that somewhere in your schedule to think about what it could be like in the postseason,” he said. “We’ve got quite a few kids with that experience already and hopefully we can go up there and put on a heck of a show.”