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Ashland set to take on Japan prep stars in Pacific Rim Bowl

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

While NFL and U.S. college football teams are gearing up for the upcoming season, high school players on both sides of the Pacific Ocean are busy fine-tuning their skills for the fall season.

A Japan All-Star squad, comprised of 61 players (250 participated in tryouts) from 28 Kansai-area high schools, will square off against the Grizzlies of Ashland High (Oregon) on Saturday at 6 p.m. in Kobe at Oji Stadium. The marquee matchup, Pacific Rim Bowl XIII, will be broadcast live on Ustream. This channel has showcased Japan college games in the last two years.

The gridiron contest, a biannual showdown, marks its 25th anniversary this year.

Since 1993, the game has been staged every other year. It was first held in 1988, then in 1990, and then a three-year gap before the tradition picked up steam. This has been a tradition for two-plus decades.

The Grizzlies earned a 26-0 victory in 2011 in the Oregon town (pop: 20,000). Now it’s time for a rematch in Kobe.

Entering the 13th meeting in the series, both sides have collected six wins.

Ashland head coach Charlie Hall’s mother’s family originates from Japan, plus Grizzlies players Kyle and Nicky Weinberg are one-quarter Japanese. Hall, Ashland’s head coach since 2005, has served as offensive coordinator for the Northern Arizona University, Southern Oregon and North Texas football squads.

To arrange for the trip, the Ashland football team raised $120,000 for expenses, primarily for eight coaches and 45 players to fly to Kansai International Airport. (The team left Medford, Oregon, at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday.)

Grizzlies players will stay with 22 Japanese host families, and 19 of those families have players on the Japan All-Star team, according to Hall.

The Ashland Grizzlies arrived in Japan on Tuesday after a one-hour stopover at South Korea’s Incheon Airport. Sightseeing trips were planned to Kyoto and Hiroshima on Wednesday and Thursday, with some players’ families and boosters also making the journey to Japan. A scheduled visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum was also announced by Ashland High.

Led by senior quarterback Danial White, the Grizzlies offense shined in the 2011 Pacific Rim Bowl. In that game, White was 19-for-23 for three touchdowns and 173 yards passing. That performance earned White a spot in Sports Illustrated’s Faces In The Crowd article for the Aug. 22, 2011 edition.

Fired up about his first overseas trip as a football player, White recently told the Ashland Daily Tidings, “It feels surreal. I’ve been looking forward to it since I was in seventh grade. We’d be like, ‘Oh, our senior year I get to go to Japan.’ There’s nothing better than that. … It’s just going to be an amazing experience for all of us.”

The Grizzlies were scheduled to have four practices in Japan before Saturday’s bowl game. After conducting only seven-on-seven drills in Oregon, Tuesday, in Kansai, marked the first full-contact practice for Hall’s squad this preseason.

“Seven-on-seven is basketball on grass,” Hall told the Ashland newspaper, “but really, with the football part of it we’re kind of untested right now.”

He added: “The good thing is that we’ve got quite a few guys that played last year that are returning, so hopefully they’ll get back into game-ready shape in no time and we’ll tee it up.”

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What led to the establishment of the Pacific Rim Bowl, the lone Pan-Asian series of its kind between American and Japanese high schools?

In 1971, former Utah State coach Chuck Mills took his squad to Japan for the first college encounter between a U.S. college squad and its Japanese counterpart, The Oregonian reported.

Four years later, Mills, then the Southern Oregon coach, led his club to Japan for a game against Kwansei Gakuin University. (And a rematch a year later in Oregon was featured in SI: “Shoguns of the Shotgun.”)

That helped plant the seeds for various college contests between U.S. and Japanese foes in the next decade. Years later, Akira Furikawa, a top executive of the Japan American Football Association, and Ashland High football coach Jim Nagel organized the first Pacific Rim Bowl, the aforementioned 1988 series opener in Osaka.

Nagel returns to the Grizzlies sideline as an assistant for the 25th anniversary game.