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PREP NOTEBOOK: Grizzlies A-OK, with or without EJ

Typically the first person to cross a finish line, Ashland senior standout EJ Holland is also the first to point out that his boys cross country team is pretty special, even without his services.

“I get a lot of attention and I think they all deserve more,” Holland said Monday in tribute to his teammates. “It is not at all just about me.”

Holland’s achievements have been well-documented over the past few years in the Mail Tribune, from his state championships in cross country and track and field to his status as one of the nation’s elite runners.

Two weeks ago in his first meet of the season, Holland eclipsed the 15-minute barrier with his win in 14:57.6 at the Rogue XC Invitational. That came shortly after announcing he had committed to compete at the University of Oregon.

So, yeah, Holland runs at an elite level and deserves every bit of praise that comes his way.

But when it comes to the Grizzlies, ranked No. 1 in the Class 5A coaches’ poll over three-time defending state champion Crater, Holland has every reason to share the spotlight.

Without Holland in the lineup, Ashland still placed third at the Northwest Classic on Sept. 14 — eight points shy of champion Summit (Class 6A) — with junior Reed Pryor and senior Arlo Davis finishing 1-2, respectively. A week prior, the Grizzlies, minus their top runner, took fourth in the Ash Creek XC Festival to 6A schools Jesuit and Franklin and California’s Dublin High.

“It was a super good showing for a team that is completely unranked and not on any radar at all,” said Holland of early results without his help. “It was a really big surprise to most people and I think still we’re very, very underrated. We haven’t appeared on any types of lists or rankings or anything besides being mentioned a couple times so we still have a lot to show, for sure.”

Ashland boasts four runners with sub-16 minute outings (Holland, Pryor, Davis and junior Cameron Stein), three in the sub-17 range (sophomore Vincent Senn, freshman Nathan Stein and senior Henry Williams), three more with sub-18 marks (freshman Jack Twining Freeman, junior Jordan Kemper and senior Aydin Timmons) and two others right around the 18-minute time frame (junior Ellis Pryor and senior Zach Williams).

While the varsity group has more than held its own with or without Holland, who just cruised to victory followed by three of his teammates in the 50th annual State of Jefferson race, Ashland’s junior varsity squad has also posted the top five times for perfect scores in each of the last two meets.

“It’s a bubble group that happens every once in a while at schools,” said Ashland head coach Hans Voskes after his team’s resounding win Saturday. “It’s a gathering of really good runners, led by EJ, but you certainly can’t overlook what Arlo and Reed are doing. It’s just a group of really talented runners overall.”

The group largely trains together and definitely supports one another, regardless of their level of expertise or accomplishments.

“It’s a culture that sort of has magically appeared of working hard and being supportive of each other,” said Voskes, who deserves more credit than he’s willing to take. “It’s not just a certain group, it’s all of them.”

Holland said that “varsity plus” group of about 10 runners helps push and develop one another, allowing the Grizzlies to compete for a top spot regardless of who is in the lineup.

“That’s a really high quality group of sub-18 minute runners,” he said. “If you were to take me and Reed and Arlo off, I think that you would still have a team that could contend for a state title.”

The foundation of that group was formed by Holland and Henry Williams as partners in crime during their middle school days, with Davis jumping on board in eighth grade after his buddies saw promise in him and suggested he compete in cross country.

“In eighth grade it was kind of the three of us really starting to set things on fire,” recalled Holland.

In fairness, said North Medford cross country coach Piet Voskes, if Davis or Pryor attended just about any other school, they would be the headliner for the cross country program.

“Both of those guys run at a very high level,” said the Black Tornado coach, “but with EJ, you have something that maybe we haven’t seen around here since Ian Dobson of Klamath Falls, who went on to be an Olympian.”

Said Holland: “Arlo definitely doesn’t get enough credit for what he does. Arlo is a great guy. I think he does unfortunately get overshadowed by me and it’s too bad. If you take me off the team, he and Reed are still amazing athletes and would be really high caliber team leaders just on their own.”

Holland was quick to point out how Davis placed third in last year’s state track and field meet in the 1,500 (3:58.73) and 800 (1:57.65), the latter coming only an hour after the former with Davis still churning out personal bests.

“Arlo has really, really good range,” said Holland. “He definitely flies under the radar a little bit but is a really, really good athlete on his own.”

As for Reed Pryor, Holland said he is especially impressed with the junior’s lofty goals and steady work ethic.

“He’s still a full year younger but being able to do workouts with us and run really good times shows that he has a lot more potential still that he can unlock,” said Holland. “I think next year as a senior he’s going to just kill it as a team leader and just as an individual as well.”

Even as Hans Voskes preaches for his team to stay humble — the Grizzlies most recently were runners-up in 2017 and 2009 but haven’t won a state team title since 1993 — it’s difficult to avoid thoughts of grandeur with a team that holds so much promise.

“We’ve always talked about a state title,” said Holland, “but now that it’s kind of coming together and everyone is working out really hard and the results are in our favor so far, it’s a really fun time on our team, but it’s also definitely kind of nerve-wracking. When we’re in the locker room or whatever, it’s kind of the elephant in the room. No one wants to talk about it because no one wants to jinx it but everyone knows right now we’re sitting in a really good position and everyone is just excited about the chance to do really well.”

The Grizzlies exorcised a few demons recently with a resounding win over Crater in the Rogue XC Invitational, edging the Comets by 19 points, but Holland said the season is still barely underfoot and Ashland is not about to get caught up in comparisons.

“We’re trying to keep the blinders on and just kind of focus on what we’re doing,” said Holland. “We’re staying away from the rankings and staying away from Athletic.net and looking at results and stuff like that. It’s more just saying we’re going to do the best we can and if that’s enough to win state, then that’s great, and if it’s not then another team deserves to win.”

Have a story idea? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune(right to left) Ashland's Arlo Davis, Pryor Reed and Evan Holland take control of the men's varsity race early during the State Of Jeferson Intvite in Ashland's Lithia Park Saturday.