One of the only trans-continental high school football games in America was played in Raider Stadium on Saturday night as the Ashland High Grizzlies defeated a Japanese All-star team in the 14th Pacific Rim Bowl. Leading up to the gridiron match was a week of events and ceremonies to welcome Ashland’s visitors in what has become a crossover of traditions united by the sport of football.
While baseball is a huge national pastime for the country of Japan, football has retained its own quiet presence since the 1930’s. During World War 2, the stationing of American soldiers caused an eruption of interest in the sport and today over 100 high schools have competitive programs. The first Pacific Rim Bowl dates back to 1988 when Ashland High School traveled to Osaka where they defeated their hosts 14-0. Since then, the bowl game has been played every two years, alternating between the countries in each of its occurrences.
Friday nights game was the first time that the match had been held at Southern Oregon University, as the recent stadium renovations and excitement that still clings to the banners of a national championship were too much for the bowl’s committee to pass up.
Throughout the first half, no team appeared to have an advantage. Both relied heavily on their defenses as many of the drives yielded few yards and resulted in punting. Ashland was able to strike first with a field goal, but Japan matched their pace and scoring as the first half ended at 10-10.
At halftime coach Charlie Hall told the team, “It’s tied up. Zero to zero, or however you want to say it, we know that we can play better.” The long term coach had been calling plays from the press box for all the game but gave his players a simple message, “30 minutes is all we have.”
In the second half, the Grizzlies found their rhythm offensively and began to put together stronger drives. Behind the power of senior running back Michael Pruitt, Ashland once again took the lead only a few minutes into the 3rd quarter.
Still, Japan was able to cling on. After a strong kick return, they sent back the intensity with a drive that featured a penalty on the Grizzlies, a fourth down pass completion and ended in a quarterback keeper touchdown.
In the fourth quarter, Ashland was finally able to get some breathing room as quarterback Kyle Weinberg found explosive receiver, Shashi Penn on some deep completions that lead to scores. With only two minutes remaining, Japan was down 31-17 but scored when Grizzly defensive backs bit on pitch-pass play.
Japan’s attempt at an onside kick was unsuccessful but they did regain possession at 1:02 when they forced a turnover on downs. The team of All-stars were able to move the ball downfield with a series of impressive completions but were stopped on the fifteen yard line as the home crowd chanted “Grizzly Power” and Ashland made their final stand. With 22 seconds left in the game, Japan’s 4th and 10 pass fell incomplete and the Grizzlies took a knee for the win, 31-23.
The result of the match erupted in emotion as the players lined to bow to each other as well as the spectators. Following the formal acknowledgement of respect; players, parents and friends all gathered at centerfield where they posed for one last combined photo-op.
The days leading up to the Pacific Rim Bowl were full the formalities and new experiences per result of the rare, bi annual event but a different feeling of sports comradery was present when all was said and done. Amid the 100 plus high school boys raising their helmets at mid-field, a single voice closed out the long standing rivalry which won’t be resumed until the summer of 2017. It is answered in one word, solidly by all the players wearing different jerseys, speaking different languages and coming from different cultures. The long standing bowl game that represents character, leadership and cultural awareness is finished with the single command, “Brothers on three! One…Two…Three!”