Sure, the days of EJ Holland tearing up the state's cross country courses are over for Ashland's reigning 5A champion boys team.
But that doesn't mean that the Grizzlies won't feed off the tremendous impact made by the two-time state champion Holland, who ran the best time ever on a 5,000-meter course in the state before heading off to a college career at Oregon.
“Absolutely, there's no question,” first-year Ashland coach Karl Pryor said. “They learned a lot from watching EJ's approach to how to train, how to prepare for the race. I think he taught them to believe in themselves, in a way.”
The task of carrying that message forward falls to Pryor, the coach of the middle school program for the past 18 years. He replaces Hans Voskes, who stepped down last year after 11 seasons as the team's coach and now assists his son, Piet, at North Medford.
Pryor – whose senior sons Reed and Ellis are on the team – has a built-in rapport with many of the runners.
“We were the pipeline to the high school,” Karl Pryor said of the middle school program. “That's one of the things that was of interest to me was a chance to see them grow and compete at the next level, and work with them.”
Ashland's boys are coming off their first state championship in 26 years. They crushed the competition at the 2019 state meet behind Holland (first), Arlo Davis (third), Reed Pryor (fourth) and Cameron Stein (fifth).
Holland and Davis have moved on – Davis is at Boise State, but not on the team – but the Grizzlies return their next four runners. They have a solid nucleus in seniors Reed Pryor and Cameron Stein, sophomore Nathan Stein and junior Vincent Senn.
“Last year, our top four could compete with just about anybody in the state, and we were just looking for that fifth guy,” Karl Pryor said. “I would say we still have a little bit of that issue.”
Reed Pryor has committed to run at Harvard and Cameron Stein has accepted a preferred walk-on opportunity at Oregon. This season is their chance to shine as they emerge from the shadows of Holland and Davis.
“I've got some pretty high-performing seniors, so one of my goals is to feature them and have them put some times out,” Karl Pryor said.
The coach likes the progress he has seen from Nathan Stein, who at 5-foot-10 has about two inches on his late-blooming older brother. He expects Nathan Stein, who had a personal best of 16:37.7 as a freshman, to push the 16-minute mark.
“That's a great prospect for us,” Karl Pryor said. “I think people are going to start noticing Nathan.”
Senn, who ran 2:01.94 in the 800 as a freshman, is a strong runner who has “got the mindset of a winner,” according to Karl Pryor. Among the candidates for the No. 5 spot are Ellis Pryor, senior Jordan Kemper, junior Luke Seeley and freshman Ravi Guerrero, who placed third in the PDXC State Middle School Championship as an eighth-grader.
“He shows great promise,” Karl Pryor said. “I feel like once we're back in school next fall, people are going to start seeing him, for sure.”
Guerrero is part of a deep freshman group that is lagging behind in training.
“I just had trouble holding onto them without school in session,” Karl Pryor said. “That's the thing that's been the hardest is I feel like we haven't been able, without school being in session, to bring those kids along in the way I was hoping to.”
Karl Pryor said the Midwestern League rival Crater serves as a model for the type of program he wants to build at Ashland.
“They provide that healthy competition and that inspiration for performing and succeeding,” he said. “I feel like we've got all the elements to be a really successful district program.”
Considering they have the top two returning placers from the 2019 state meet in Reed Pryor and Cameron Stein, the Grizzlies would “definitely be a podium team” if the state meet were held this season, according to Karl Pryor.
If the top 5A teams can find a way to hold a meet during the “culminating week,” he said that Ashland would be interested in competing. He already has heard chatter about coaches pushing for it.
“I just want the kids to be ready for whatever opportunities present themselves,” Karl Pryor said. “I keep talking to the kids about, we just don't know what tomorrow is going to bring.”