Ashland senior Scott Gustafson was the 2018 Midwestern League player of the year. (Photo courtesy Ashland High School)
Ashland senior Scott Gustafson was the 2018 Midwestern League player of the year. (Photo courtesy Ashland High School)

Recent seasons have followed a familiar pattern for Ashland’s boys soccer team.

The Grizzlies have been a force in the Midwestern League – where they have gone 28-4-2 in the past five seasons, winning three titles – but they have exited the 5A playoffs in the first round for four consecutive years.

The end of the 2018 season was particularly painful, a 2-1 home loss to Wilsonville in which they gave up the winning goal on a corner kick with 10 seconds left.

“I’ll never forget it. That broke our hearts,” coach Abdiaziz Guled said.

But this season represents a new opportunity, and perhaps Ashland’s best chance to make a run at a state championship since 2008, when the Grizzlies fell to Churchill 3-2 in the state final. Ashland returns all but one player, including the league player of the year in senior midfielder Scott Gustafson.

“We’ve been looking forward to it,” Guled said. “We have high hopes. Now they know what it takes. They’re just more hungry this time, and more mature. This time they seem focused.”

Gustafson, who led the Grizzlies in scoring and assists last season, makes it all go as the team’s “distributor,” according to Guled. The balanced attack also features junior Carson Pindell, a first-team all-league pick, as well as sophomore Davidson Graham and juniors Noah Aguilar and Kona Makai.

The defense is solid with first-team all-league senior sweeper Samuel Austin and senior stopper Milan Pyle. Junior Gabe Giancarlo and senior Zander Huston are sharing time at goalkeeper.

Ashland – ranked third in the OSAAtoday 5A coaches poll -- rebounded from a season-opening 1-0 loss to 6A South Medford to beat 4A North Valley 2-1 and 6A Roseburg 2-0. Gustafson scored in both wins.

Guled said the loss to South Medford served as a wake-up call, much like it did last season.

“We’re finally connecting,” he said. “The kids are focused, and they just love the game. If we stay healthy and do what we’re supposed to do, I think we’ll have a good season.”

The Grizzlies expect to be pushed in an improved Midwestern League that includes No. 4 Springfield and No. 7 Churchill.

“We know that every team in our league is getting a little bit tougher,” Guled said. “Everybody has some good kids. It’s good to see it’s a very competitive league. If our league gets better, we can get some home games for the playoffs.”

Guled, a native of Somalia who has coached in the program since 1997, is hoping his team can finally overcome that first-round obstacle.

“I think this group is going to be as good as the team that went to the championship many years ago,” he said.