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Grizzlies encouraged with early-season success

A year ago, the Ashland High girls basketball team had to wait until its fifth game to pick up win No. 1 on the season.

Through five games this season, the Grizzlies’ win total has already surpassed that — and with room to spare.

And when you’re trying to change the culture around the program for the better, there’s no quicker cure than starting out a season on a positive note.

“It really helps the next couple games knowing that we have some confidence,” said sophomore wing Jayd Sollinger, who had a game-high 22 points in Ashland’s win over Mazama on Tuesday night. “I think that will help us with our defense, with our offense. We’re starting to get our plays down now, so it should be good.”

Ashland (3-2), coming off yet another come-from-behind win, opens Midwestern League play Friday night in Eugene against Willamette (1-3).

Friday’s league opener will be the third time in the past 11 days that the Grizzlies have headed out on the road and logged at least two hours in the bus.

But even with Willamette being the newest member of the MWL after Marist dropped down to Class 4A, the first trip to Eugene this season isn’t one the Grizzlies are shying away from.

“I think we’re really excited just to see how we perform — especially since it’s a new season for us and we’re a completely different team from last year,” Ashland junior guard Nina Munson said. “Right now we’re just trying to keep up that momentum that we keep on getting ... and sometimes losing. It’s about just keeping that going from our last win against Mazama and bringing that into Willamette.”

All five of the Grizzlies’ games this season have been close and competitive, with only their most recent win, 52-42 over Mazama, being decided by double digits.

Ashland has lost its two games by all of eight combined points.

It’s that kind of competitiveness that head coach Antione Perry has liked seeing out of his team through the first three weeks of the season.

“We knew we didn’t win games (last season), we knew we had a losing streak (entering the season) and we knew we just wanted to be more competitive,” Perry said. “We’ll take it one game at a time, try to win each game and now we start our league. We know, the girls have set goals, that hey, we want to win at least a league game this year. They’ve been working hard, they know the challenge ahead of them, but we also know that we have the ability as long as we play up to our ability.”

That losing streak stretched all the way back to January, as Ashland lost all 14 of its MWL games a season ago. It came to an end when the Grizzlies claimed a 55-51 season-opening win against Klamath Union at Mountain Avenue Gymnasium on Nov. 28.

Since then, it’s been a win-every-other-game kind of pattern for the Grizzlies.

But it’s also been a five-game stretch where Perry sees improvement.

“The biggest thing is really about our team, ourselves,” Perry said. “We need the girls to believe in themselves and have really been working hard this offseason to just really try and concentrate on the little things in practice, concentrate on the little things in the games. We’ve improved our free throw shooting, our defense has played much better. Every game we’ve had a chance to win — and that’s all we can ask.”

A big part of Ashland’s success thus far has been its performances coming out of halftime.

The Grizzlies’ last two wins — on the road against Roseburg and at home versus Mazama — have both featured second-half comebacks, with improvements on both ends of the court enabling Ashland to overcome early deficits.

Perry can joke that it’s all coaching — which will bring a hearty laugh along with it — but he credits his players for their recent in-game adjustments.

“I think the girls do a great job of adjusting,” Perry said. “We start off slow, which we’ve been trying to really fix, but the girls adjust to the game, adjust to the players and what they’re seeing and we start to get defensive stops and better looks at the basket.”

Added Sollinger: “I think in the third quarter we’ve been coming out with a lot of effort and energy. Our defense really helps us. In the first half we don’t have as much effort and energy but we always seem to come back in the second half.”

Knowing how competitive their league will be again this season — three of the top 10 teams in this week’s OSAA Class 5A coaches’ poll are from the MWL — effort and energy will likely have to be there more often than not.

But with how the first two months of the 2018 calendar year went, ending it on a positive note has done the Grizzlies plenty of good.

“The preseason, even before games started, is what has gotten us to this point,” Munson said. “Just learning to trust our teammates, trust the process and work our way through, I think that is really what is going to push us and make us win games this year.”

Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.

Ashland High junior Nina Munson goes up for a layup during the Grizzlies' game against Klamath Union at Mountain Avenue Gym on Nov. 28. (PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR)