Grizzlies embrace role of underdog
The Ashland High boys basketball team doesn't mind playing the role of the casually dismissed, wide-eyed underdog from somewhere down south. Nor do the Grizzlies shy away from taking the court as the jeered, villainous road team.
That's good, because when the Grizzlies play their first state quarterfinal game in roughly two decades tonight against undefeated and No. 1-ranked North Eugene, they'll be all of the above and more.
The Grizzlies (19-7) and Highlanders (25-0) tip off at 8:15 p.m. in the fourth and final first-round game of the OSAA Class 5A state tournament at McArthur Court in Eugene. The winner will play either second-ranked Corvallis or fourth-ranked Jefferson in Friday's semifinal round, while the loser will fall into the consolation bracket.
In today's other quarterfinal games, ninth-ranked Churchill faces eighth-ranked Roosevelt and sixth-ranked Mountain View plays third-ranked Hillsboro.
Ashland, which hasn't advanced this far since losing 48-43 to Sunset in the 1986 quarterfinals, could be called the ugly duckling of the tournament. The Grizzlies are the lowest-ranked team still playing and are one of just two elite eight squads that don't hail from somewhere between Eugene and Portland. But that's just fine by the Grizzlies, who on Monday seemed quite comfortable and even embraced their "just-happy-to-be-alive" status.
"In a way we have nothing to lose now, so we might as well just play as hard as we can," said senior wing Colin Costantino, one of the heroes of Ashland's 75-67 playoff win over St. Helens on Friday night. "We feel like we have a chance. We know we're a good team. We might not be on paper the best team or anything like that, but we know we're good. We're good enough to upset people."
Costantino and the rest of the Grizzlies took the court at Ashland Middle School on Wednesday — the AMS court boasts the quality of being the same size as McArthur — for their second of three scheduled pre-tournament practices, and first that focused on what to do against the big, bad Highlanders. Whatever Ashland first-year head coach Royce Miller comes up with, the Grizzlies will probably have to execute it to near perfection in order to pull off the upset, especially in the wake of Monday's jarring setback: Ashland forward Austin Raymond, hailed by players and coaches alike as the team's top defender, was ruled out for the rest of the playoffs just before practice thanks to a knee injury suffered late in Friday's win.
"He's somebody that really kind of wrecks the offensive scheme of the other team just by putting on as much pressure as he does," Miller said of Raymond.
Taking over for Raymond will be Garrett Tygerson, who lacks experience, but not size — the sophomore post is 6-foot-4, three inches taller than Raymond. He also has the confidence of his coach.
"Garrett's proven over the last few weeks that he's ready to go with us right now, so we feel like we can fill in for (Raymond) OK, but the depth issue comes into play then," Miller said.
North Eugene is led by 6-8 Midwestern League most valuable player Brian Conklin, who exploded for 20 points, 16 rebounds, four steals and four blocks in the Highlanders' 62-58 playoff win over seventh-ranked Hermiston on Friday. Conklin, the state's leading 5A scorer at 20.2 points per game, is taller than most high school posts but runs the floor like a wing, making him a difficult defensive matchup for just about any team in the state.
Playing a mean second fiddle for North Eugene is Andrew Hookland, a 6-4 senior wing/post who added 15 points and 10 boards against Hermiston.
Defensively, the Highlanders play man-to-man almost exclusively, a rarity in prep basketball.
North Eugene head coach Bill Wagner, in his seventh season with the Highlanders, believes nerves will play a major role in determining the final outcome.
"I think anytime you've got two teams that haven't been to the final site for a while, there's going to be a lot of emotions," he said. "I think the first team that can settle down and play their game is going to have the advantage. Some kids get caught up in the moment."
If Ashland manages to squeeze past the Highlanders, the road won't get any easier in the semis. Corvallis is 23-1 and has hardly been challenged since its lone loss in December, and Jefferson (17-7) has won 12 of its last 14 games, with both those losses coming against Roosevelt.
The Grizzlies have little experience against the state's elite this season. They faced only one of the teams still alive during the regular season, losing a Dec. 29 contest against Churchill, 48-39. But that was when Ashland was just getting back to full strength; Rory Blanche, the team's leading scorer, missed most of the first month of the season with a broken wrist.
"We always had the goal to make it to Eugene, but we're definitely looking to get a couple victories up there, see what we can do," said Blanche, who's scored 49 points in his last two games.
"If you're going to make it through to the end, you're going to have to play those teams anyway," Miller said of the Grizzlies' tough draw. "Whether you get them at the front end or the back end, you're going to have to play those teams to get through the tournament. We just happen to have them at the front end."
At least one Ashland High rooter bus and possibly two will leave from the school at 3:45 p.m. today. It will head back to Ashland at about 12:30 a.m. Thursday morning. Cost is $10 per person.
"I'm really excited about it," Costantino said. "It seems like the late game is always kind of the prime time game. I just makes it even more fun, really.
"We're just going to play as hard as we can, have as much fun as we can and hopefully something miraculous might happen. But, if it doesn't, I'm sure it will still be an amazing experience."
Joe Zavala is the sports editor at the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at 482-3456 x 224, or firstname.lastname@example.org