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Challenge awaits

Ticking off Wilsonville’s considerable offensive credentials before Tuesday’s practice at U.S. Cellular Community Park, Ashland High head football coach Charlie Hall didn’t even try to zero in on a specific area of concern.

A 2,700-yard passer? Check. A thousand-yard receiver? Check. A thousand-yard all-purpose player? Two checks. A 500-yard rusher? Check.

And points? The ninth-seeded Wildcats are the most prolific scoring team in the state, averaging 50 a game.

“We have good athletes and I think we can match up on them,” Hall said, “but they’re going to get theirs.”

That’s the challenge facing Ashland in the OSAA Class 5A state semifinals Saturday at Mel Ingram Field in Grants Pass, where the fifth-seeded Grizzlies (9-2) will be trying to pin down their sixth state championship game appearance and first since 1998 against the ninth-seeded Wildcats (10-1). Kickoff is scheduled for 5 p.m.

Second-seeded Crater (11-0) and sixth-seeded Summit (10-1) will square off in the other semifinal at noon on the same field.

While Ashland employs a much more balanced attack, averaging 204 yards passing and 154 yards rushing a game, the two teams have plenty in common.

Each is coming off an emotional quarterfinal victory over a league rival that beat them during the regular season. Each has medium-sized offensive lines surrounded by dynamic skill players, often deployed in exotic formations. And each enters Saturday’s game with a huge question mark at quarterback, although for different reasons.

The Grizzlies started senior Kyle Weinberg last week at Springfield, but Hall replaced Weinberg with junior Tucker Atteberry after Weinberg struggled in the opening quarter. The move paid off, as Atteberry completed 8 of 12 passes for 147 yards and the go-ahead touchdown, a 60-yard catch-and-run to James Hutchings midway through the fourth quarter.

In Wilsonville, quarterback Connor Neville is the unquestioned starter, but the Northwest Oregon Conference co-offensive player of the year suffered a knee injury in the third quarter of Wilsonville’s 24-21 upset win over top-seeded Liberty. Backup quarterback Tom Gomez took over and, on his first play, threw a 74-yard touchdown pass to Justin Altenhofen.

“(Neville) will be a game-time decision,” Wilsonville head coach Adam Guenther said.

It would be a huge loss for the Wildcats if Neville can’t play. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound signal caller ranks as one of the best in the state at any level, having completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,703 yards and 35 touchdowns. In 258 pass attempts, he’s only been picked off six times.

But Guenther said the team has confidence in Gomez, who filled in earlier this season and has decent numbers himself, completing 55 percent of his passes for 887 yards and 13 touchdowns with three picks.

“We’re very fortunate that our backup quarterback is an extremely good athlete,” Guenther said, “and when he went into the game at Liberty we didn’t change our offensive game plan at all. We did run a little fly every once in a while, we did put in our wildcat. But our offensive game plan’s not going to change based on the quarterback that we have. I think (Neville) has a stronger arm and sees the field a little bit better, but I think (Gomez) utilizes what’s in front of him a little bit more.”

Hall said that the Grizzlies would be ready for both, and added that Gomez could start for a lot of teams.

Ashland’s quarterback conundrum is more fluid and has nothing to do with health concerns. Weinberg and Atteberry have shared time all season and both have been sensational in spurts. Now, entering the most important game of the season, their quarterback efficiency ratings are almost identical, with Weinberg throwing for 1,204 yards and 15 touchdowns and Atteberry for 1,035 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Hall was noncommittal Wednesday, saying that he’ll decide based on how practice goes this week. And no matter who gets the start, the quick switch last week shows that Hall won’t hesitate to make a change.

“It’s kind of just who we are,” Hall said. “The team accepts that, I think. From a leadership standpoint everybody’s comfortable with either guy in there. Luckily, I think there’s good cohesion with the team. They both do a good job with leadership.”

No matter who starts at quarterback for the Wildcats, they’ll probably spend most of the game throwing the ball. Wilsonville gains an average of 469 yards per game on offense, and most of that (326) comes through the air.

Wilsonville’s top receiver is rangy 6-foot-3, 180-pound Harrison Steiger, who has 55 catches for 1,013 yards and 20 touchdowns. But three of Steiger’s teammates have also topped the 600-yard mark, so the Wildcats don’t let teams lock in on one receiver.

After watching the Wildcats on film, Hall was impressed with what he saw. Their short passing game essentially doubles as their running game, he said, and their QBs employ everything from stand-still quick passes to five-step drops. Four-receiver sets are standard, so Ashland’s defensive backs are expected to be tested.

Unless, that is, the Grizzlies are able to put pressure on whomever is playing quarterback for the Wildcats. That happens to be a strength for Ashland, which has 27 sacks and allows 19.4 points per game.

“I have a lot of confidence in the personnel we have,” Ashland senior lineman Collin McGuire said. “I figure me in the middle and then all of our D-ends are extremely good at pressuring the quarterback. So I have a lot of confidence in that department. And as far as their size, it’s kind of how it has always been — the boys up north always look good on the roster and look good in the uniforms, but it all comes down to how you can play Saturday night.”

While the Grizzlies don’t score as much as the Wildcats — Ashland averages 35.3 points per game — they may be more diverse, thanks to a healthy rushing attack led by Mason Dow, a sneaky screen game and the occasional gadget play.

Dow has rushed for 657 yards and five touchdowns. Walker Shibley leads Ashland’s deep receiving corps with 660 yards and seven touchdowns, Shashi Penn has 369 receiving yards and five touchdowns and James Hutchings has 370 receiving yards and four scores.

Penn, who showed off his game-breaking speed while returning a kickoff for a touchdown last week, says Zachary Shelton is Wilsonville’s shutdown corner. Shelton has a team-high six interceptions for the Wildcats, but Penn isn’t worried.

“We’ll see where (Shelton) goes,” Penn said, “but I think we have a lot of great receivers on our team and if you focus on one, another one gets open.

“I don’t see how they’re going to stick with man (defense). I think that’s how we’re going to beat them.”

“We’ve learned some things from all the different games that we’ve looked at,” Hall said. “I think we need to run the ball. We need to make some big plays. I think we need to test those matchups in man coverage because I think we’ve got some pretty good receivers. They have tall receivers that can run pretty good. We’ve got some guys that have got some pretty good explosive speed. So it’s going to be a fun game to watch because the ball’s going to be in the air a lot.”

Ashland senior Shashi Penn will play a pivotal role on both sides of the ball against Wilsonville Saturday in the Class 5A state semifinals. Here he's shown intercepting a pass against Crater last month. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH JR.