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Ashland basketball teams ready to resume season

After 24-day absence, Grizzlies eager to get season going again tonight

ASHLAND — Ashland senior Gabby Heiken couldn’t help but have her mind go there after she first heard that the Grizzlies’ basketball season had been put on hold earlier this month.

“There definitely was a minute that went through my head of, oh goodness, I just played my last basketball game without knowing,” recalled Heiken with a laugh. “I definitely had a minute of the sadness and the what if I don’t get to play again feeling.”

For the past three weeks, Ashland athletes have seen a wide range of emotions — going from uncertainty of what had just happened to now feeling incredibly antsy after nearly a month between contests.

There will, however, be a sense of relief tonight for the boys and girls basketball teams after their wrestling counterparts have already made their return to the mat.

After 24 days between games, the Ashland boys and girls basketball teams return to the Mountain Avenue Gymnasium court tonight for something other than practice.

The Grizzlies, who last played on Jan. 4 before the Ashland School District suspended athletics due to COVID, will host a doubleheader against North Bend, resuming a Midwestern League schedule that they hit the pause button on.

The girls game is set for 5:30 p.m., with the boys game to follow at 7. Fans, however, will not be allowed in the stands.

“Especially going through my sophomore year where I got hurt and couldn’t play (due to knee surgery), it means a lot to be out there and playing,” said Heiken. “It’s really nice to feel like we can still play. That’s how we’re looking at it. (Tonight’s) game is with no fans, but we get to play.”

The pause, which was announced Jan. 10 by the Ashland School District, came as a result of Ashland High’s switch to remote learning due to rising COVID-19 numbers amongst staff and students.

It wasn’t until the beginning of last week, Jan. 17, in which Ashland basketball teams could return to practice.

“It’s been a strange time,” said Ashland boys basketball coach Sam Osofsky. “Our focus has been, clearly more than ever, on health. It’s really taken all of our focus as a coaching staff and as a team to make sure we have great practices and make sure that we’re improving every day. It’s really hard to do in the middle of January and when you’re (three weeks) in between games.”

The Grizzlies were set to face Churchill in Eugene on Jan. 7 — the Friday before the pause went into effect — but the Lancers were forced to postpone due to their own COVID-19 protocols.

While there has been other games postponed around the Midwestern League, Ashland is the only school to take an extended pause this season.

While there won’t be fans in the stands tonight, it is something that will be revisited next week when in-person learning resumes at Ashland High.

Either way, the Grizzlies are just ready for some basketball again.

And they also take the court knowing that the games that had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pause have all been rescheduled.

“It was tough, but it was understandable with everything,” said Ashland girls basketball coach Antione Perry. “The girls have been staying positive and trying to make the best out of the situation.”

“We have been practicing, but it’s been very tough not playing games,” added Perry. “It’s almost like the start of the season again. We had two full weeks in November where we were just practicing as well, and it showed in our first game. We were fresh and able to run up and down, but our shots were off and you just can’t get that game speed no matter how hard you try.”

As one can imagine, there has been an added emphasis on staying healthy so that teams can try and complete the 2021-22 season. Along with following protocols currently in place, players wearing masks has been a constant fixture at practices once again — a sight reminiscent of when the COVID-impacted spring season took place.

Without the ability to play true games, keeping players in anything close to game shape has been the biggest point of concentration other than keeping them virus-free.

Osofsky and Perry said that they’ve tried to make things as game-like as possible, even if it has been practices in an empty gym that don’t allow for the typical ambient noise and energy a crowd can create.

“As a coach, you can’t fully replicate game situations and that feeling of being in a game,” said Osofsky, “but we always try and practice at a high level so that we are ready for a game. We’ve been able to run several scrimmages with our coaches hopping in as officials to try and recreate those situations, but as a group we feel prepared and focused and ready to take on this challenge. We feel like the boys are prepared as ever to go play games and maybe appreciate it more than ever.”

Going into the pause, both head coaches felt good about where their teams were at even though their Jan. 4 games against Crater were losses.

The Ashland boys, who still have hopes of making some noise in the MWL, enter tonight’s game against North Bend 4-5 overall and 1-1 in league play.

“We felt like with our record at 4-5, we’re a better team and it shows,” said Osofsky. “All credit to the teams that beat us, but we felt like we scheduled a really tough schedule, and I think that shows in our (OSAA power) ranking hovering around the top 10. The teams that we’ve played, we feel like really helped prepare us for the league schedule coming up.”

Wins haven’t come as easy as for the Ashland girls, who started the season 1-8 and have dropped their first two league games. While some of the losses might not look pretty, Perry felt like things were progressing and his team was on an upward trajectory when the season was paused.

“I was feeling really good about it,” said Perry of his team’s progress. “We knew that it was going to be a challenge this year just with the changeover that we had, but the girls were positive with each other, they were working really hard together and really starting to play together. We knew that we would have to do that since we didn’t have that Jayd Sollinger player like last year who could just step out and score.”

The challenge for both teams is now to get back up to speed in a hurry with an amplified schedule that now calls for three games a week until the end of February.

Although they may be busier than usual, it certainly beats the alternative.

“It’s what we’ve got to do — for us, it’s all about playing games,” said Heiken. “The season is only three months long, so to really go almost a month without playing (a game) is crazy to think about. It’s not unusual for what we’ve been through the past two years where we haven’t been playing games, so we all kinda expect to do things that aren’t normal. Last year, we played two games in a week, so it seems almost fitting that we’re doing multiple games in a week.”

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

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneAshland senior Gabby Heiken goes up for a shot during the Grizzlies’ Jan. 4 game against Crater at Mountain Avenue Gymnasium.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneAshland senior Hawthorn Lapierre, center, shoots between two South Medford defenders during a Dec. 1 game in Medford.