After 24 days of absence, Grizzlies are eager to get the season going again tonight
ASHLAND — Ashland senior Gabby Heiken couldn’t help but think about that after she first learned that the Grizzlies basketball season had been suspended earlier this month.
“There was definitely a minute that went through my mind like, oh god, I just played my last basketball game and didn’t know it,” Heiken recalls with a laugh. “I’ve certainly had a minute of sadness and what if I can’t play anymore.”
Over the past three weeks, Ashland athletes have seen a wide range of emotions – ranging from uncertainty about what had just happened to now feeling incredibly moody after almost a month between games.
However, there will be a sense of relief for the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams tonight after their struggling counterparts have already returned to the mat.
After 24 days between games, the Ashland boys’ and girls’ basketball teams return to the Mountain Avenue Gymnasium field tonight for something other than practice.
The Grizzlies, who last played on January 4 before the Ashland School District shut down athletics due to COVID, will host a doubleheader against North Bend, resuming a Midwestern League schedule where they hit the pause button.
The girls’ game is scheduled for 5:30 PM, the boys’ game will follow at 7 AM. However, fans are not allowed to enter the stands.
“Especially during my second year where I got injured and couldn’t play (due to knee surgery), it means a lot to be there and play,” said Heiken. “It’s really nice to feel like we can still play. That’s how we look at it. Tonight’s game is without fans, but we can play.”
The hiatus, announced on Jan. 10 by the Ashland School District, came as a result of Ashland High’s move to distance learning due to rising COVID-19 numbers among staff and students.
It wasn’t until early last week, January 17, that Ashland basketball teams were able to return to practice.
“It’s been a strange time,” said Ashland boys’ basketball coach Sam Osofsky. “Our focus was clearly more than ever on health. It really took all of our focus as a coaching staff and as a team to make sure we have great practices and make sure we improve every day. It’s really hard to do in mid-January and when you’re (three weeks) between games.”
The Grizzlies faced Churchill in Eugene on January 7 – the Friday before the break took effect – but the Lancers had to postpone it due to their own COVID-19 protocols.
While other games have been postponed around the Midwestern League, Ashland is the only school taking an extended break this season.
While there will be no fans in the stands tonight, it will be re-watched next week when personal learning resumes at Ashland High.
Anyway, the Grizzlies are just ready for some basketball again.
And they are also going to court knowing that the matches that had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 break have all been rescheduled.
“It was tough, but it was understandable with everything,” said Ashland girls’ basketball coach Antione Perry. “The girls have stayed positive and tried to make the best of the situation.”
“We practiced, but it was very difficult not to play games,” added Perry. “It’s almost the start of the season again. We had two full weeks in November where we were just practicing, and it showed in our first game. We were fresh and able to run up and down but our shots weren’t good and you just can’t get that game speed no matter how hard you try.”
As you can imagine, extra emphasis has been placed on staying healthy so that teams can try to complete the 2021-22 season. In addition to the following protocols currently in effect, players wearing masks have been a constant factor during practice – a sight reminiscent of when the COVID-affected spring season took place.
Without the ability to play actual games, keeping players in something close to the game’s form was the biggest point of concentration other than keeping them virus-free.
Osofsky and Perry said they tried to make things as game-like as possible, even if it was exercise in an empty gym that didn’t take into account the typical ambient noise and energy that a crowd can create.
“As a coach, you can’t fully replicate game situations and that feeling of being in a match,” Osofsky says, “but we always try to practice at a high level so that we are ready for a match. We’ve been able to run several scrimmages with our coaches who came in as umpires to try and mimic those situations, but as a group we feel prepared and focused and ready to take on this challenge. We feel like the guys are ready to play games as always and maybe appreciate it more than ever.”
Going into halftime, both head coaches had a good feeling about where their teams stood, even though their January 4 games against Crater were losses.
Still hoping to make some noise in the MWL, the Ashland boys face North Bend tonight 4-5 overall and 1-1 in the league.
“We felt that with our record of 4-5 we are a better team and it shows,” Osofsky said. “All credit to the teams that beat us, but we felt like we had a really tough schedule planned, and I think that shows in our (OSAA strength) ranking hovering around the top 10. The teams we’ve played in feel like we’ve really helped us prepare for the league schedule ahead.”
Wins aren’t as easy as for the Ashland girls, who started the season 1-8 and dropped their first two league games. While some losses may not look pretty, Perry felt like things were moving forward and his team was on an upward trajectory when the season was interrupted.
“I felt really good about it,” Perry said of his team’s progress. “We knew it was going to be a challenge this year just with the switch we had, but the girls were positive with each other, they worked really hard together and really started playing together. We knew we had to do that because we didn’t have that Jayd Sollinger player like last year who could just go out and score.”
The challenge for both teams now is to get back up to speed quickly with an expanded schedule now requiring three games a week through the end of February.
While they may be busier than usual, it certainly beats the alternative.
“It’s what we have to do – for us it’s all about playing games,” Heiken said. “The season only lasts three months, so to really not play for almost a month (a game) is crazy to think about. It’s not unusual that we haven’t played any games in the last two years, so we all expect to do things that aren’t normal. Last year we played two games in a week, so it almost seems appropriate that we play several games in a week.”
Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Ashland senior Gabby Heiken goes for a shot during the Grizzlies’ January 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.