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Grizzlies look to snap PRB skid, beat Japan

Ashland High head coach Charlie Hall understands that the Pacific Rim Bowl is much more than a game.

But that doesn't mean that one won't be played. And it sure doesn't mean that Hall, who's endured three consecutive PRB losses to the Japan all-stars, doesn't care what happens once the whistle blows.

"First of all, we're going to try to win the game," he said before Thursday's practice. "It's not just an exhibition where everybody just plays and the score is no big deal. It's a game, and that's why they keep score and that's why there's a series record.

"Our approach is, we're going to try to win the game, we're going to put our best 11 guys on the field."

They've shared homes, meals and bits of themselves for the past five days. Now, it's time for football. The 12th game in the biennial series that began in 1988 will kickoff at 7:30 p.m. today at Walter A. Phillips Field. Japan has won the last five games to take a 6-5 lead in the series.

"We're the Japanese World Cup women's soccer team right now, that's our role," Hall said, comparing the Grizzlies to the team that shocked the U.S. in the Cup final. "Hopefully, we have enough chemistry and enough fight in us and hopefully the Japanese will miss a lot of shots on goal and we can capitalize on that and pull something off. But we're definitely the underdog in this game, no question."

Ashland is the unofficial underdog because Japan has dominated the series since its last loss in 1999, when the Grizzlies pulled off a 21-20 victory in Ashland. The next game in the series, 2001 in Osaka, was all Japan, 48-0. Then it was more of the same in 2003 (26-0, Japan) and 2005 (28-6, Japan), until Ashland finally put up a fight in the 2007 game, losing 27-21.

The Japanese have taken control of the series on the strength of their usually formidable rushing attack, which often features a lightning quick running back darting behind a powerful offensive line. That certainly looked to be the case again Thursday, when Japanese running backs bolted into the end zone only minutes apart during a scrimmage at Phillips Field. Their speed and cutback ability, says Hall, may eclipse any other running back Ashland will face the rest of the year.

"That's the key on defense — we've got to stop their run game," he said. "I think if we make them put the ball in the air that would be to our advantage."

In other words, Ashland's defensive line and linebacker corps must shine tonight. The good news is, they'll have a major reinforcement suiting up. Giving the defense an unexpected boost will be tackle Christian Ostmo, who graduated from Ashland High but will play tonight to help fortify a unit that's short on numbers.

Defensive end Alec Ralston will anchor that defensive line, and Franklin Lime will start at the other end. Mason Montgomery returns as the starting middle linebacker after leading the team in tackles as a freshman in 2010.

"If they can make some mistakes and turn the ball over early and give us some momentum and give us some confidence, and we can capitalize on that then we've got a chance to hang with these guys for four quarters," Hall said.

Leading Ashland's offense will be young gun Danial White, an incoming sophomore who beat out junior RJ Atteberry and junior transfer Connor Kaegi to earn the starting job. Hall says Atteberry will see action, too, both on offense and as a safety on defense, but that White will be given a chance to move the Grizzlies' offense.

"He's a competitor," Hall said of White, son of former Ashland quarterback Greg White. "He's been a quarterback all his life, and Danial's an older sophomore so we don't feel bad about putting him in the fire like that. He's going to be in it a month from now (when the regular season begins) anyway."

"Well, it's definitely a learning experience, I'll say that," White said of learning the offense. "But I'm starting to catch onto it and I'm starting to learn the routes by heart, and once I get that down I'll be good to go."

The Grizzlies will once again run a no-huddle spread offense designed to push the tempo and limit opponents' ability to make situational substitutions. It worked and was at times spectacular in 2010 — Ashland's offense scored 30 points per game.

That wasn't against an all-star team, though. To stay on the field against Japan, the Grizzlies will probably have to be able to run the ball effectively behind junior-to-be Jon Volz, who averaged seven yards per rush in limited action last year.

"If we get the ball to (Volz) in space, then I think he'll do a great job," Hall said, adding that both White and Atteberry can also do some damage with their legs.

Ashland has plenty of other weapons on offense, including wide receivers Taylor Humphrey and Ian Wurfl and the tight end, Lime, who at 6-foot-4 will likely see plenty of balls thrown his way.

Ashland Daily Tidings sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.