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Grizzlies to unveil new gym Friday

No matter how you try to put it in words, there's really no matching the excitement folks in Ashland feel as they inch closer to a day that some believed would never come.

After being displaced for almost two years, athletes, coaches and administrators at Ashland High will finally get to enjoy the fruits of their patience when the renovated Mountain Avenue gymnasium officially opens Friday for the Ashland Rotary Hoop Classic.

"I cannot wait," Ashland athletic director Karl Kemper said Monday. "It's like we've been stuck in an apartment for 21 months while we're waiting for our house to be built."

Unless there's a schedule change, the first official basketball game will be at 1:30 p.m. Friday pitting the girls teams from North Medford and Summit. The Ashland girls will take the court at 6 p.m. against Marshfield, and the Ashland boys will follow at 7:45 against Henley.

There will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new gymnasium at 5 p.m. Friday to recognize prominent figures in Ashland who helped make it all happen, as well as representatives from Adroit Construction, which tackled the $7.7 million renovation project.

"Adroit's just been a dream to work with," says Kemper. "They did a really nice job of blending the old with the new so it still has a lot of that retro feel. It's gorgeous."

The original gym was built in 1953 when Ashland High had around 300 students. Kemper says the school and community had outgrown the facility in just about every way. He's been giving tours of the site the past few days, sometimes three to four times per day, and the response has been universal.

"It's just people dropping their jaws," he says. "I took our JV boys (basketball) coach Clint Bryan in the other day and if you could've just seen his face. I took my kids to Disneyland last April and he had the same look on his face. He's a basketball junkie and he just couldn't get over it."

From shiny new maple floors to upgraded heating and cooling systems and just about everything in between, the Grizzlies' new home has certainly been worth the wait. New lighting, wireless scoreboards, locker rooms and expanded seating are all in place, as are additional bathrooms and a new main entrance and ticket booth off Mountain Avenue.

The renovated gym boasts 94-foot basketball courts in the main and auxiliary gym instead of the previous 84-foot courts. The main gym space is just under 12,000 square feet — well above what Grizzly fans are accustomed to — and the new weight room is about 1,700 square feet bigger (4,500 overall) than the previous one.

"It's a pretty huge upgrade wherever you look," says Kemper, "but the nicest thing is just the added space. We've got so much more room than we had before."

A classroom for physical education and music classes has also been added to the building.

While it's always fun to think about the newest toy, it's also important to acknowledge how well students and staff members in Ashland have handled themselves during the renovation process. Kemper moved his office across the street to Lincoln Elementary School, and teams have been competing at Ashland Middle School while their new home was pieced together.

"It's been very inconvenient but everyone's been great," says Kemper. "The middle school has gone above and beyond to ccommodate and welcome us, and the coaches have just handled it extremely well. They've been focused on just needing a place to play so they can do their thing."

"This is what we model for our kids, that we're going to make the best of it no matter what the situation is," he adds.

That's not to say that everything is picture-perfect at the Mountain Avenue gym. Kemper says they're still solving a glitch with the size of the wrestling room, which currently is too small to fit all the mats, and the school will be using a portable sound system until the regular one is completely in place.

The school's "Wall of Fame" also will not be up by this weekend, but Kemper says the collection will be put back up as soon as time permits.

"When you move there's glitches and there's likely going to be a bunch of them," he says. "There's always going to be bumps in the road, some bigger than others. When we open up Friday we will be like a family that's just moved into a house that has most of their boxes piled in the garage. It just takes time to get everything in place."

Kemper expects to move back to his office in the gym later this week, and there will be an all-school assembly at 11 a.m. Thursday so the students can be among the first ones introduced to their new digs.

As for any other firsts, Kemper laughingly admitted to stealing some of the limelight Sunday night when he went in with his son Jordan and shot the basketball around.

"I've already made the first shot in the gym," he admitted. "I made the first 3-pointer, the first free throw and first layup. I kind of abused my authority and went in and shot around ... it was awesome."

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SPEAKING OF UPCOMING tournaments, the Wells Fargo Advisors Christmas Classic slated Thursday-Saturday at Cascade Christian High will feature a rematch of sorts that has been a long time coming.

The event has changed names a few times over the past few years but continues to be spearheaded by Challengers boys basketball coach Brian Morse and one of his top assistants, Terry Rasmussen.

As a special request from his brother-in-law, Rick Jackson, Morse says his Challengers will take on Jackson's St. Mary's Crusaders in the first round at 9:15 p.m. Thursday at the Pavilion.

"He asked if we could do that and I was happy to oblige," says Morse.

The two boys teams haven't squared off on the basketball court since meeting for the Class 2A state championship in 2007. After winning both Southern Cascade League matchups earlier in that season, Cascade Christian won 55-34 in the title game, then moved to 3A status the following season. The Challengers are the defending 3A state champions.

St. Mary's remained at the 2A level and has typically been on the opposite side of the mid-December bracket, leading to the big gap in games played between the rivals. With both set to be classified as 3A squads next year, Morse says this was a perfect time to re-establish the matchup. As league foes, however, next year's tourney will return the teams to opposite sides of the bracket.

"They have one of their best teams since that 2007 year," says Morse of sixth-ranked St. Mary's. "They are really good, so it should be a lot of fun."

"Those are some of the best games I have ever had as a coach, playing against St. Mary's," he adds. "It was always a packed house and emotions get really high for games like that. All that just makes it a lot of fun."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com