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Annen is center (back) of attention for Ashland

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Ashland senior Joelle Annen leads the way for Class 5A’s best defense in girls soccer

ASHLAND — Ever since the fall of 2019, the Ashland girls soccer team has discovered that sometimes scoring goals in practice hasn’t been as easy as when the opponent is from a different school.

It’s not because the Grizzlies haven’t had talented attacking players — they most certainly have — it’s for a different reason entirely.

“For the last few years, my offense felt like they couldn’t score in practice,” said Ashland head coach Eric Wolff, “but it was just Jo shutting things down.”

“Jo” is Ashland senior center back Joelle Annen, who has been at the heart of Ashland’s success at the back ever since she made her varsity debut as a freshman three years ago. The Grizzlies’ defense has literally and figuratively been built around Annen, who plays in the center of sixth-ranked Ashland’s three-player backline and has developed into a player Wolff doesn’t worry about whatsoever.

“She makes all of the right decisions and I don’t have to really coach her,” said Wolff, now in his 22nd season at the helm in Ashland. “I’m like, ‘Jo, do your thing, help the girls out a little bit’ and she’s there doing her thing.”

“She does all those things that people don’t really notice,” he added. “Just being in the right place at the right time isn’t really an accident, she just gets there and closes things down.”

That’s something that her teammates know all too well.

And it’s most certainly something that opposing attackers have come to find out over the last three-plus years now.

For Annen, an all-Midwestern League pick last season and an all-Southern Oregon Conference honoree as a sophomore, her senior season couldn’t have started any better, especially with there being just as much team success for the 5-0 Grizzlies as there has been continued individual success.

Annen and the rest of the Grizzlies’ defense — one that has a new starter on each side of her — has allowed just one goal this season, the best mark in all of Class 5A.

“It’s something to be proud of,” said the soft-spoken Annen. “Usually as a team we’ve had a pretty good defense, but it’s never been a shutout type of good defense. Every season is going to have that one play where everyone’s just caught off-guard and there’s a fast striker that makes her way through and there’s a little bit of miscommunication. But I’m pretty proud of what we’ve done so far.”

That one goal allowed, which came late in Ashland’s 5-1 win over Hidden Valley on Sept. 19, just so happened to come when Annen was getting a late-first-half breather.

So as much as starting the season with five straight shutouts would be pretty good bragging rights to have, it’s also the kind of defensive record that Annen can boast a little bit about, too.

“I love knowing that we’ve had shutouts for most of the time,” said Annen. “The one goal happened when I was on the sidelines, too, so it was tough to see, but I’m still so proud of the other defenders for holding it down.”

When you’re the leader of a team that has had one of the better defenses in the MWL for the last couple of years, it’s hard not to think that way.

And it just serves as the motivation to make sure the next shutout is the next time Annen and her teammates step onto the field.

“It puts some pressure on me and the rest of the defense, but I think it just makes us play better,” said Annen. “After the first two shutouts (this season), I was like, ‘OK, we’re going to try and keep this for the rest of the season if we can.’ We’ve allowed the one goal, obviously, but I think we’re going into these league games pretty strong.”

Dealing with the pressure of leading the defense is something that Annen has become more accustomed to as her high school career has gone on.

Now, as a senior, there is no denying who is the leader of the Ashland backline. It’s Annen, who describes herself as the kind of leader who wants to keep those around her calm rather than constantly get on their case about things.

“I think it’s better if there’s a good kind of friendship with the team,” said Annen. “I’ve definitely gotten better at (being more vocal). I was very silent my freshman year, but senior year I’m definitely working on it and I think I’m doing a little bit better.”

The kind of leader Annen has developed into is no surprise to Wolff, who was named MWL coach of the year after he led the Grizzlies to their first unbeaten regular season last year.

“She’s one of the captains, but she’s by nature a very quiet person,” said Wolff. “She likes to be a role model by modeling what she’s doing. She could help the team by being more vocal but she doesn’t want to be the bossy player and she’s such a nice, sweet girl. When the passion of the game is going, people can sound harsh and she doesn’t want to be that player.”

It also helps that the goalkeeper playing behind Annen, senior Esme Barnes, is somebody that she’s known since they were 5 years old.

“We can communicate with each other to the point where if somebody is doing something wrong then we can call each other out on it and nobody feels bad,” said Annen. “She’ll tell me if I need to step or have time and I’ll tell her if she needs to come to (the ball) or something like that.”

There’s something else that Annen knows is vastly improved from when she was a freshman: her overall game.

“I used to be a finicky defender, I’d say, and I’d stab a lot and stuff like that,” said Annen. “I’ve definitely grown as a player and gotten a lot more confident and I’m more confident in my defensive abilities. I know I can pretty much get to any ball, and that confidence allows me to do that.”

The early success has allowed Ashland to move into the 5A coaches’ poll for the first time this season last week, as the Grizzlies enter Saturday’s away game against 6A West Linn looking to go unbeaten in their six nonleague games.

Ashland will open MWL play against the team it was tied with atop the league standings to end the 2021 regular season, North Eugene, on Saturday, Oct. 8, at Walter A. Phillips Field.

“I think it’s pushing us a lot,” said Annen of trying to win the MWL title outright this season. “We tied with North Eugene last season and we want to win that on our own this year. I think we can definitely do it.”

The confidence is there for both Annen and the Grizzlies as a whole.

And for a team that feeds off Annen’s quiet confidence, that has proven to be the right kind of mix so far this season.

“I was a little bit worried about this year, but then right away from that first game we clicked,” said Annen. “We have that offense, and in a lot of years we had really good strikers and wings but just couldn’t finish that ball. Obviously now we’ve got that and we’ve got the defense holding everything down, so I feel really, really good going into league games.”

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

Ashland senior center back Joelle Annen before practice Tuesday at Ashland High School. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]