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Ashland duo of Hammond, Clark driving Grizzlies into 5A playoffs

ASHLAND — One has great vision on the ball and is the engine of her team’s midfield. The other is a speedy winger who voluntarily told her coach she wanted to play defense in the spring to help out her team.

Between the two of them, Ashland junior midfielder Ini Hammond and senior forward Emmeline Clark have turned out to be quite the combination for the Grizzlies this fall.

And you don’t need to tell Ashland head coach Eric Wolff twice about that.

“We have a good group. I have probably five or six girls that have a big impact on every game, but those two have certainly created a lot of our offense this year,” Wolff said. “They’ve just learned to read each other very well. Ini’s got the passes and Emmeline knows when to make the runs and she knows how to finish much better than she used to. Both have just grown a lot as players and have gotten more accustomed to each other.”

The familiar duo has played together on the varsity level for the last three years but they have certainly made the most of this year’s schedule returning to a normal fall season.

Not only did Ashland come within one win of capturing the outright Midwestern League title in the regular season, but its 8-0-5 overall record marked the first time in Wolff’s 21 seasons as head coach with the Grizzlies that one of his teams finished the regular season unbeaten.

The Grizzlies, who are ranked sixth in the final in-season Class 5A coaches poll, will find out their first-round opponent in the state playoffs this weekend, and they could very well be playing at home when the postseason opens up. That very well could be pivotal considering, since making the 5A quarterfinals in 2014, Ashland has not won a playoff game — falling four times in the first round.

This season, though, the battle-tested Grizzlies could be ready to break through, with Hammond and Clark providing for much of that optimism to complement seniors Luna Wilhelm, Chloe Holzshu and Sachi Moran, among others.

Hammond and Clark have proven to be at the heart of the Ashland offense — especially during the early weeks of the season due to injured teammates — by combining to score 11 goals and record nine assists during the regular season.

On the season, Ashland has scored 23 goals.

“Early and in the middle of the season, they were doing a lot of the offense for us,” Wolff said. “My strikers were injured, so I didn’t have my normal strikers in there and I was pretty limited to what those two could create. They did a great job in the middle stretch of the season.”

Hammond, the younger sister of former Ashland standout and current Eastern Washington defender Mya Elder-Hammond, is described by Wolff as a midfielder who can “not only can play in a tight space and have good foot skills, but she also is good at seeing the big field and seeing the runner.”

With her passing range, Hammond is able to connect the lines and initiate the Grizzlies’ attacks from her spot in the center of the midfield.

A lot of the time, that aforementioned runner just so happens to be Clark, whom Wolff said “makes great, well-timed runs.”

That’s been even more the case this season, with Clark moved into a more advanced role after spending the pandemic-impacted spring season as a fullback to help fill a team need.

But because of the Grizzlies’ strong defense — they’ve allowed just 11 goals in 13 games — Wolff felt more than comfortable moving Clark up into a more natural spot as a winger.

“I like defense as much as I like offense, so I haven’t really minded playing forward or playing defense,” Clark said. “I think both are amazing positions and whatever way I can help my team and help my teammates the best then I’ll play that position.”

They describe their rapport as one that is of two players that are of like mind — aggressive with the desire to play fast and with an eye for the goal.

“I think just the more we’ve played together, the more I know where she’s going to be or she’s going to be screaming for the ball going down the line,” Hammond said. “I can always count on that, and she knows where she can find me, too. Just playing together more we’ve gotten to know each other better.”

“A lot of the time I know where she’s going to pass it before I get the ball,” Clark added. “I just know how to base my run off of that, so I think we just work really good together.”

But how would they describe each other?

“Speedy, aggressive, she likes to play quickly and she likes to go to goal,” Hammond said of Clark.

“She’s consistently good, never bad,” Clark said of Hammond. “She’s always aggressive, always wanting to go to the goal and she can read the play even before it happens.”

Considering that the two play for different club teams during the offseason — Clark locally and Hammond up in Portland — they’re on the same field together for just a small part of the calendar year.

That makes what they’ve done all the more impressive, Wolff said.

“Because they haven’t played much in the offseason and it’s just been at the high school, that (relationship) takes a while,” Wolff said. “Ini, as a freshman, she was a great player already, but she just needed to learn to adjust to the team, so that has taken a little bit of time. With COVID, we missed the whole (fall) season then did the spring season, so it was just taking a little bit of time. But starting in the spring, those two were already combining really well and are just refining their process between the two of them.”

Considering what they’ve been able to accomplish the past three seasons together in Ashland jerseys, the fact that they don’t play on the same club team isn’t much of a worry.

“I think just because we do so much during the school season, that’s how we’re able to build that chemistry together,” Hammond said. “I’ve gotten to know what she wants to do, when she’s going to run and where she’s going to run. Just having that option if I don’t have anything else I have her, too, and a lot of the time she’s my first option as well.”

While Hammond feels like she will always have an outlet out wide, Clark is definitely confident and comfortable in knowing that she’s got a midfielder of Hammond’s quality consistently looking to get her the ball.

“It allows me to feel really confident about my runs because I know that I’m not leaving a position and having a useless run,” Clark said. “I just feel very confident that I can trust (Hammond) on the field because I know I’m going to get the ball.”

The end product has been plenty of good times for an Ashland team that has built off what it did in the spring, which was viewed as a bit of a rebuilding time with so many young players on the roster.

Those youngsters have certainly grown up between then and now, and the Grizzlies can definitely see that playing against quality 6A opposition in the spring has paid dividends come the fall.

And it doesn’t hurt when you’ve got a couple of talented players like Hammond and Clark leading the way.

“They’re two great players that are going to be playing in college and have the maturity to go as far as they want to go,” Wolff said. “They’re just great kids to be around. They’re good, positive, hard-working girls and they’re great teammates. They’re not selfish, they play as a team, which makes them great all-around players.”

Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Ashland soccer players Ini Hammond, left, and Emmeline Clark warm up before practice on Thursday.