ASHLAND — While every other team in the state wonders what will happen Friday night once the lights are turned on, the whistles come out and the headsets are plugged in, the Ashland Grizzlies already know.
That's the good news. The better news is, for the most part they liked what they saw.
Four weeks after their wild 32-30 victory over Japan in Pacific Rim Bowl XIII, the Grizzlies are preparing for what will officially go down as the first game of the 2013 season Friday against Klamath Union, but is actually the second game if you count the Grizzlies' shootout at Japan on July 27. At Oji Stadium in Kobe, Ashland reclaimed the lead in the head-to-head series against the Japan all-stars while also flashing some serious potential on offense, racking up 389 yards, 177 rushing.
Ninth-year head coach Charlie Hall says it's no fluke.
"I think we're up there," said the man who led the Grizzlies to the Class 5A state quarterfinals in 2011 and 2007. "I think this is a team that can challenge to be as good as any of the teams we've had in the past."
If the Grizzlies do make a postseason splash, senior linebacker/fullback Mason Montgomery (6-foot, 215 pounds) will certainly be a big part of it. The 2012 Midwestern League co-defensive player of the year and four-year starter will once again terrorize opposing ball-carriers from his middle linebacker position and, for the first time since his freshman season, will also get a chance to punish would-be tacklers as the Grizzlies' starting fullback.
Montgomery's move to the Ashland backfield — he was an all-conference center last season — adds another dimension to an offense that had plenty of firepower to begin with. Senior Danial White (6-0, 185) returns as the dual-threat starting quarterback, a position he shared last season but now will be his full-time. Running Ashland's spread no-huddle offense, a scheme he ran his previous two years as a starter, White will be surrounded by plenty of capable options, but the most explosive are junior tight end Parker Layton (6-1, 190) and sophomore receiver Shashi Penn (5-9, 160).
Boasting impressive power and soft hands, Layton caught three passes for 113 yards, including a 51-yard bomb in the fourth quarter, against Japan — a performance that sparked comparisons to former Grizzly great Talon Haggard.
Penn is another kind of player all together. Blazing fast and elusive, Penn can turn a short pass into a long touchdown in a heartbeat. He showed flashes of that potential in Japan, netting 57 yards rushing and a touchdown on five carries.
"He can blow the top off some things," Hall said of Penn. "He'll be a weapon. He's probably our big playmaker."
Seniors Carter Glick (6-0, 180) and Sebastian Warren (5-9, 150) return as the reliable possession receivers, and junior Ryne Robitz (5-8, 170), who also came up big at Japan — 11 carries, 70 yards — will be the primary ball-carrier.
Opposing defenses will also have to account for White, a lefty, when considering Ashland's run game. One of the fastest players on the team, White is a threat to take off on any given play and is coming off a season in which he rushed for 419 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Last season, White shared quarterback duties with Connor Kaegi, but with Kaegi gone White is expected to take every snap. Hall says White has embraced the opportunity to be Ashland's full-time quarterback again.
"I just feel like Danial understands the dynamics of what happened last year and I think he's come very prepared with a really good, healthy perspective about always improving and never being satisfied," Hall said. "I see a different level of focus from Danial this year, which has been nice. He's made nice throws, he's made good decisions. So far he's doing a great job.
"We put a lot on his plate as a decision maker and maybe even more so this year from that position, but I think he relishes that level of being the guy, the field general. I think there are a lot of signs that indicate he's going to do well this year."
The offensive line's success will likely play a major role in determining how effective White can be, and if everyone stays healthy he appears to be in good hands. Senior right tackle Cody Eisenberg (6-4, 225) will be responsible for protecting White's blind side, while junior Seth Cowan (5-11, 160) will share time with senior Joe Hearn (6-2, 205) at the other tackle spot. Junior Ivan Tagui (5-10, 210) will start at right guard and senior Tyree Heesacker (5-11, 205) will start at left guard. Senior Nate Carver (6-0, 180) is back after missing the second half of the 2012 season with an injury.
Montgomery will once again be the face of the Grizzlies' 4-3 defense. Built like a boulder with a nose for the ball, Montgomery gives Ashland one of the best defensive watchdogs in state. He'll roam the middle of the field along with fellow linebackers Asher Beasley (5-11, 188) and Layton, and backup Chance Swenson (5-11, 195).
"Personally, I feel like I'm the best I've ever been," Montgomery said after a recent practice. "I trained hard all offseason and I feel like I have more experience than most people will face, and hopefully I can use that to our advantage."
Hearn and Eisenberg will be the defensive ends, while Heesacker, Tagui and Carver will share time at tackle. Sophomore Collin McGuire (6-1, 240), a transfer from Colorado, is also making a strong push for playing time on the defensive line.
The Grizzlies don't have very much experience returning in the secondary. Juniors Max Montgomery (5-11, 175) and Max Atteberry (6-3, 160) will be the starting safeties, while Warren, senior Matt Hedges (6-2, 170) and junior Theo Whitcomb (5-11, 160) will share time at cornerback. Robitz, maybe the best cover guy on the team, will also see some playing time at corner, but that's not ideal. Hall said: "If we can find somebody close to (Robitz's) ability, we'll rest him for offense."
Entering their third season as a member of the Midwestern League, the Grizzlies should once again challenge to finish near the top of the standings — they finished 5-2 last season, good enough for third place. Will this be the year Ashland breaks through and challenges perennial power Marist for the conference title?
The Spartans have won the previous two meetings by a combined score of 96-0, so that hasn't come close to happening yet. But, the Grizzlies believe this year's squad may have the athletes to do something special.
"We've always been the top two or three, but we want to win it," Hall said. "(The Spartans) are the team to beat. They've won it every year we've been in it. They're picked to win it again, I'm sure, this year because they're well coached, they get good kids, they're smart, they're tough and they don't make mistakes. Do they have the D1 game-breaker guys that they've had? I don't know, but I guess we'll find out here pretty soon."