If a football coach seems to be almost rooting for his team's next opponent, practically pulling for them to at least put up a fight, chances are he's not short on confidence.
Nor should he be if his team is winning by an average of 52 points a game, is currently shooting for its third state championship in the last four years and has won 50 of its last 51 contests dating back to the start of the 2010 season.
So when Sherwood head coach Greg Lawrence says, "We would like to have a challenge," without a hint of irony, he's not trying to be smug or condescending. He's simply being honest.
"They'd like to play a full game," Lawrence said of his Bowmen in a phone interview Wednesday, "so we would like to have a challenge and have to rise to the challenge against a team that at least could stand up to us. And any time you face a team that's undefeated there's a reason they're undefeated. So there's no way we're overlooking Ashland."
The top-ranked Bowmen (11-0) will try to make good on their coach's promise on a big stage Saturday, when they face third-ranked and fellow unbeaten Ashland (11-0) in an OSAA Class 5A state semifinal game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m., with the winner slated to face either second-ranked West Albany or fourth-ranked Silverton for the 5A championship the following week.
Though the Northwest Oregon Conference-champion Bowmen and Midwestern League-champion Grizzlies are the state's only remaining unbeatens, there's no question which team is favored now that the two 5A powers from opposite ends of the state are set to square off.
Not only are they the defending state champions, the Bowmen have obliterated every road block that's stood in their way by no less than 35 points — Sherwood's average final score this season is 61.5-9.4 — and are two wins away from completing one of the most dominant four-year runs in Oregon prep sports history. Take away an ill-timed fumble late in the 2011 state championship game and the Bowmen would likely be going for their fourth straight state title. As is, they enter Saturday's contest riding a 24-game winning streak.
Ashland coach Charlie Hall, who was an AHS assistant when the Grizzlies captured their last state title in 1998 at Autzen, believes that his team understands the challenge that lies ahead and is doing what it can to overcome the intimidation factor.
"They watched the film and they see a pretty talented group of (Sherwood) kids," Hall said. "But our approach is more on the process, more about executing the game plan and taking it one game at a time, whether it's offense or defense, and not being all freaked out about whether they score or if (the Bowmen) get a first down or a big play. I think that's where you've got to go about your business. We've got to have a great practice right now and we've got a game plan. If we execute our game plan I think we'll be in the game. And if we give Sherwood a scare or a challenge in the second half you never know what kind of emotional things can kick in at that time. That's what we're hoping for."
In order to do what no other team has been able to do this season and force Sherwood to play its starters in the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies will almost certainly have to find a way to do something else that no other team has pulled off: slow down the Bowmen's vaunted Wing-T offense.
Deceptive and flexible, Sherwood's version of the Wing-T combines ball fakes with pulling and trapping linemen, a devastating one-two punch that often blasts open running lanes wide enough for a Boeing 747 to fly through. The results could put a fright in the most seasoned defensive coordinator: Sherwood averages 465 yards rushing a game, has eight running backs with at least 175 yards rushing on the season — senior Keegan Lawrence (6-0, 190 pounds) leads the way with 1,739 yards rushing and 27 touchdowns — and, most impressive of all, enters Saturday's game averaging a mind-boggling 14.3 yards per rush.
And keep in mind that the vast majority of those yards were covered by Sherwood through the first three quarters of its games. After that, and with a running clock activated thanks to Oregon's 45-point mercy rule, the Bowmen were usually more concerned with eating time, rotating in backups and getting to the locker room than adding to their already gaudy statistics.
"They are very, very good at what they do," Ashland defensive coordinator Tito Soriano said. "They're sharp, they hardly make any mistakes and they're physical. So what we need to do is kind of match their physicality, which is kind of what we had to do against Roosevelt (last week). And then, just read our keys and be specific to what your key is."
Keeping their eyes on the right back may be the Grizzlies' greatest challenge, explains Soriano.
"A lot of what they have going on is window dressing," he said. "All the backs moving and everything — those are basically the same plays, just different things are going on. As long as the kids have specific keys to read on and they do the right thing every time we can have a chance. But when you get three or four kids following the wrong guy, that's when you get the big runs and the big plays."
The good news for the Grizzlies is, if they're looking for a reason to believe they need only go back to the last meeting between the two teams — the 2011 state quarterfinals. That Sherwood team had similarly impressive credentials and was also the defending state champion when it hosted Ashland, but the Grizzlies held the Bowmen to 229 yards of total offense that night in a hard-fought 14-3 loss.
If the Grizzlies can bottle up the Bowmen again on Saturday, this year's Grizzly offense — more explosive than the 2011 version — may be able to hold up its end of the bargain and pave the way for what would be a true shocker.
Lawrence doesn't seem too concerned about that possibility, however. For one, he says, this Sherwood team is better than the 2011 squad (in fact, Lawrence believes this is the best Sherwood team he's ever coached). And for another, the Bowmen know what to expect from the Grizzlies this time around and have devised a few counter attacks of their own.
"We've shown them that film a few times," Lawrence said. "I won't get into how (the Grizzlies) did that, but they did some things that hurt us. So we're ready for it. We plan on giving them a few looks that they haven't seen."
Part of Ashland's defensive strategy will no doubt fall on the offense — that is, the Grizzlies will try to sustain drives in order to keep the Sherwood machine parked on the sideline. That means senior quarterback Danial White and his impressive supporting cast, which includes running back Ryne Robitz, receivers Matt Hedges and Shashi Penn and tight end Parker Layton, must keep the chains moving against a defense that ranks second in the state in points allowed.
That won't be easy, but the Grizzlies roll out a formidable offense of their own which averages 39.5 points and 361 yards a game. White, who is quite comfortable at Autzen Stadium after helping Ashland claim two Pop Warner state titles there, leads the way with 1,830 yards passing and 625 rushing. He twisted his ankle against Roosevelt, but has been practicing all week and is looking forward to getting another crack at the Bowmen after struggling in the 2011 quarterfinals.
"We've had a vision since the beginning of the season that we'd be a good team and we're going to go as far as we can," he said. "It's right there. The state title's right there. It's just within our grasp, and we're going to do everything we can to get it and make our mark on history at Ashland."
Senior two-way lineman Cody Frost-Eisenberg took it one step further.
Huge underdogs? So what.
"I personally like it," he said. "It'll make us look better when we beat them on Saturday."
Reach reporter Joe Zavala at 541-776-4469 or email@example.com