Tonight’s “Survivor” will see Benton native Ashley Underwood making it to “the merge,” a seminal moment in each season of the reality TV show when the two tribes fuse and team play gives way to individual scrambling.

Though tribal allegiances tend to stay intact for some time, Ashley won’t be able to rely solely on her alliance with Grant, Natalie, and Boston Rob much longer. Ashley will now have to compete in individual immunity challenges and weather an increasingly stormy social game.

Here’s what’s sizizing up to be Ashley’s toughest competition.

Boston Rob: New England’s “Survivor” hero played an excellent first season in 2002. Since then, he returned to two all-star seasons, both mediocre showings on his part. “Redemption Island” has seen Boston Rob execute one of the most flawless early games played by any contestant. He’s going into the merge with a secret immunity idol and three or four loyal followers.

Boston Rob is the man to beat, which also makes him a target. The fact his wife, Amber Brkich, whom he met on “Survivor,” won the $1 million prize on “All Stars” may also create a “he doesn’t really need to win this thing” factor amongst the other players. Fortunately for Ashley, Rob has yet to utter a thought about trying to get rid of her.

Phillip: The wild-eyed alleged former federal agent is the reason Rob may only have three dedicated tribemates going into the merge rather than four. Phillip is all over the place and comes across as genuinely unstable at times. While he’ll have to pull off a miracle to win the game, his propensity for stirring up conflict could hurt Ashley, whom he’s already shown distaste for.

Julie: Like Phillip, the tiny-eyed Julie seems a little off her rocker at times. But something tells me the 50-year-old mother and firefighter is playing a serious game. Her casual style caught my attention from the get-go and made me think there’s something more there.

Ralph: This big, bearded good ol’ boy is dumb as a brick and strong as an ox. Ralph probably isn’t a major threat, but he could go on a tear if the game serves him enough physically intensive immunity challenges. All in all, Ralph poses little threat to Ashley.

Grant: Ashley’s dreadlocked alliance mate and a former NFL player, Grant seems like a sweet, possibly naive guy. Physically, he is the perfect specimen as a “Survivor” player. If he socially maneuvers — or even stumbles — his way close to the end, he could be a contender. He could also be the type of guy who makes a pact to take Ashley with him all the way.

Mike: The former Marine and Iraq War veteran could be another power player. He hasn’t seen enough screen time yet to really gauge.

Natalie: She’s one of those players that likely has most asking, “Who’s Natalie?” The 19-year-old dancer is the youngest to ever play the game, and she’s all but inseparable from Ashley. It’s safe to say that unless Ashley pulls a vicious backstab out of her pocket, Natalie will be along for the ride as long as Ashley is. This friendship could prove a strong two-prong voting establishment … unless it’s severed.

Matt or Sarita: There’s a big skill gap between these two, and whoever wins tonight’s Redemption Island duel will return to the game. If Matt wins, the fact he spent two undefeated weeks on Redemption Island, surviving duels, the elements, and solitary boredom should earn him some major cachet. Though young and overly earnest, Matt could return to the game as a serious contender.

If it’s Sarita who returns, she’ll pose little threat to Ashley or anyone else unless her brief time on Redemption Island has given her a new perspective on the game. The same nonthreat status goes for Andrea (the young, blonde nonplayer with no visible strategy in place), David (the obnoxious attorney who ticked off his Zapatera tribe constantly), and Steve (a smart player but also an overbearing nuisance).

What about Ashley? Beyond you and I rooting for the home team here, Ashley has an increasingly serious shot to win or at least come close. Even host Jeff Probst, who has seen more “Survivor” than anyone, has a few chips bet on Ashley.

“Dark horse to win the game,” Probst dubbed her in a recent blog entry on JeffProbst.com. “She’s very good in the challenges, and come the individual portion of the game, she will be a threat. She also has friends in the girls and will probably make more friends if she makes the merge.”

That’s a positive endorsement from Probst indeed. But his kicker is the biggest badge of honor for Ashley yet: “If I was Rob I’d be most worried about her in the end-game.”

Zach Dionne is an entertainment editor at AOL’s PopEater.com in New York City. He is a graduate of Messalonskee High School in Oakland and the University of Maine. This column will run Wednesdays and Thursdays for the duration of Ashley Underwood’s time on “Survivor: Redemption Island,” which airs on CBS Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Follow Ashley’s progress (through Zach) on Twitter @mainesurvivor.


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