Eric Wolff has had his share of white-knuckle moments in his 20 seasons as Ashland's girls soccer coach.
But perhaps no team has raised his blood pressure more than this year's version of the Grizzlies, who despite their 7-0-5 record always seem to play matches on a razor's edge.
“My girls like to do just enough to make sure they don't lose,” Wolff said. “A lot of those ties, we should've won, for sure, and we kind of let the other team back in. From a coaching standpoint, it's pretty frustrating, but it's all good. It feels a lot better when you don't stress out until the 80th minute.”
Since making the 5A quarterfinals in 2014, Ashland has not won a playoff game, exiting in the first round four times. This season, though, the senior-dominated, battle-tested Grizzlies could be ready to break through.
“If we have all 11 show up and play their best game, I think we would be extremely difficult to beat,” Wolff said. “I can see us taking pretty much any team into a shootout. I feel like we can play a low-scoring game with anybody, and if we get an ounce of luck, we could win any game.”
Ashland, No. 6 in the OSAAtoday 5A coaches poll, showed how dangerous it can be Oct. 9 when it played No. 4 North Eugene (10-0-2) to a 1-1 draw in a Midwestern League match.
The Grizzlies took the lead in the first half on a goal by senior Luna Wilhelm, and with their defense locking down, they had the Highlanders on the ropes. But North Eugene was able to pull even on a mad scramble off a corner kick and escape with the tie.
“North is a fantastic team,” Wolff said of the Highlanders, who have outscored their foes 40-3 this season. “In the field of play, they definitely outplayed us. But I think my defense did a fantastic job limiting North Eugene's potent offense. We did not allow a good scoring opportunity out of free play.”
Ashland had an excellent chance to take the lead against North Eugene with about 10 minutes left, but a shot by senior Emmeline Clark missed high.
“Before the game, I would've been ecstatic with the prospect of tying North Eugene, but then when you're in the game, and you give up kind of a scrappy goal, you could just about taste victory, and you don't get it,” Wolff said.
The Grizzlies suffered a similar fate Tuesday when they gave up a long free-kick goal and had to settle for a 1-1 tie with Crater in a Midwestern match. The result pushed their league record to 5-0-3 and allowed North Eugene (6-0-2) to take over first place.
“That's what we've been doing the last few games, giving up goals on corner kicks, long free kicks,” Wolff said.
Ashland has nine seniors on its roster, including three fourth-year starters in Clark at forward and Chloe Holzshu and Sachi Moran at outside back. Junior defender Joelle Annen and junior center midfielder Ini Hammond are third-year starters.
The defense has held opponents to 11 goals. Annen “shuts down everything that's coming at us,” Wolff said, and Holzshu and Moran have been strong on the outside. Junior Esme Barnes has taken over at goalkeeper of late, spelling senior Zadi Burke.
Clark and Hammond have provided much of the offense, combining for 11 goals and nine assists for the Grizzlies, who have 23 goals. Hammond and Wilhelm are an effective combination in the midfield.
“Luna is extremely good with the footwork and the small space, and Ini has great big-field vision,” Wolff said.
Ashland finishes the regular season Saturday with a home match against Springfield (6-2-1, 3-2-1). The Grizzles still have a shot at the league title, but need to win and have North Eugene tie or lose against Churchill (3-7-1, 2-4-1) in its regular-season finale Tuesday.
Wolff is eager to see how his team will fare in the state playoffs.
“I have a good solid 11 that I can put on the field right now,” he said. “In terms of varsity experience, that's got to be my highest one. I'll tell you what, I wouldn't want to play us. I'd hate to try to score on this team when everybody shows up.”