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Field of their dreams

Prior to the 2016 fall sports season, the Ashland High School boys soccer team’s home-field advantage was hardly an advantage at all — except, that is, for the Grizzlies’ keen awareness regarding the location of divots, sprinkled like landmines throughout the Ashland Middle School soccer pitch.

But since moving to the high school’s new state-of-the-art, synthetic Walter A. Phillips Field, the Grizzlies have a newfound appreciation for playing host, and it shows. Ashland is 10-2 at Phillips Field, including 4-0 this season, and the Grizzlies will try to keep the momentum going tonight in one of their most important games in years.

Ashland (10-1-2, 6-0 Midwestern League) and Marist (9-3, 5-0) are the only MWL teams still without a loss with less than a week remaining in the regular season, and they’ll square off tonight at Phillips Field in a showdown that will almost certainly determine the league champion.

“Friday night, under the lights for a league championship,” Ashland co-head coach Brad Roupp said. “That’s a first for Ashland soccer.”

Through good years and bad (mostly good), the Grizzlies managed to win a majority of their home games at the rutty AMS field approximately one mile south of Ashland High School. But for a perennial Class 5A playoff program that contends for conference championships year after year, the home away from home was hardly worth bragging about.

All that changed on Sept. 2, 2016, when Ashland played its first game on the newly renovated Phillips Field. Previously reserved only for football games, the field was outfitted with a synthetic surface, stuffed with organic infill — the first of its kind in Oregon — and lined for soccer as well as football. The old lights were replaced with a much brighter LED set, too, though for team used to playing at the middle school a couple lanterns strung together would have qualified as a lumens upgrade.

The move was a major improvement in every way imaginable for both the boys and girls soccer teams (the girls played home games at North Mountain Park). Besides the level playing surface, soccer players and coaches have raved about what it’s like to play in front of permanent, covered bleachers (not the temporary aluminum variety at AMS), on their home campus, on a field with great footing and, occasionally, under the lights.

“The difference is everything,” senior captain Ian Rinefort said following last Friday night’s home win over North Eugene. “On the other field at the middle school we had to play our playoff game at 2 p.m. when school was still going because it got dark. And now we’ve got the lights, we’re here, we can play Friday nights, everybody shows up and just the cheers of the crowd motivates you so much. It’s amazing. The field is one of a kind.”

“Oh, yeah, for sure,” said Declan Hinkley, another senior captain, when asked if he’s noticed a big difference. “It was like playing in a jungle on the middle school field. We had lettuce growing and the ball wouldn’t move.

“And playing here,” he said, turning his head and gesturing to the panoramic view, “we get the fans, we get the lights, and especially in the day time we can see all the mountains all around here. It’s beautiful, and the fact that we can play on campus and practice on campus, it makes a huge difference.”

Anything helps, though when it comes to wins and losses evidence suggests this year’s Grizzlies are so talented, so deep and enjoy such time-forged chemistry, they would have been successful playing in the Big Al’s parking lot.

Part of that is the on-board experience. A whopping 13 of the 18 varsity players are seniors and 15 are upper classmen. Part is balance. Against North Eugene last week, a game Ashland won 7-0, the Grizzlies’ first six goals were scored by six different players, and their close-to-flawless season — the one loss against Roseburg deserves an asterisk, as several starters stayed home sick — includes at least one highlight for just about every player on the roster.

Rinefort’s header off a corner kick capped a dramatic second-half rally from a 2-0 deficit for a 2-2 tie at North Medford on Sept. 28, a game that also included a whiz-bang Scott Gustafson-to-Declan Hinkley-to-Jade Boucher-to-Rinefort-to-Ben Lucero combination.

Against South Medford on Sept. 19, Joseph Wallner-Sentle took a through pass from Jahnoi Hall and chipped it over the keeper for a 3-0 lead. Later in the eventual 4-0 victory, Boucher boomed home a free kick from 19 yards out.

“The chemistry comes from playing together all our lives,” Rinefort said. “We’ve been playing together since we were 4 years old.”

Hinkley agreed and elaborated, explaining that most of the seniors first dribbled soccer balls together at the Ashland YMCA a little over 10 years ago before being split into two teams and facing off as rivals. They joined forces again in high school and it was like nothing had changed.

“Everything just kind of clicked together,” Hinkley said. “Every play’s super fluid and it helps us so much in the process of winning games. …We know where we’re going to be at all times. I don’t have to look up. I know he’s going to be here when I do this.”

The Grizzlies’ goal is to do what no Ashland soccer team — boys or girls — has ever done and win a state championship. Hinkley predicts it’ll happen, but If anybody is qualified to pin down the odds of Ashland going the distance it’s Roupp, who guided Ashland to its first and only appearance in a state championship game in 2008 (Churchill beat Ashland 3-1 in the final).

Since the first week of the season Roupp has maintained that this Ashland team is a special one, but he’s also been around long enough to know that skill alone isn’t always enough. Chance, in the form of a timely bounce or a freak injury, may also impact a game and a season. So when asked to compare that loaded 2008 team with this year’s and rate the Grizzlies’ chances, Roupp chose instead to focus on a truth he’s pretty sure is not up for debate: win or lose, his team — which has scored more goals (53) than all but one other team in the state — is a thrill to behold.

“They understand the runs they can create, like they’re trying to think two passes ahead,” he said. “So if a ball is going east or west, maybe they’re making a run north or south, trying to create space. They’re two or three passes ahead in their thinking and that’s where the game gets beautiful.

“It just is so joyful for me to see young athletes getting to demonstrate their skills in front of a crowd like this. And parents sitting, with the grandstands and the lights and the new turf field. The community providing this field for us is just ridiculously nice and we’re so grateful for it.”

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.