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Future is now for Sayre

ASHLAND — Back when he was thrust into the spotlight as a slightly overwhelmed sophomore, Rieger Sayre had faith there would be better days to come.

If he and a handful of other Class of 2020 teammates who had their clock started a little early could just keep plugging away, the dream was that those early lumps would pave the way for future success.

Given the senior season exploits of Sayre and his Ashland High cohorts, it’s safe to say that’s how it has all turned out.

The Grizzlies enter their biggest game of the season Friday at Crater with an unbeaten record and stand as one of the state’s top Class 5A football teams, with a lot of that success stemming from Sayre’s ability to steer Ashland’s high-powered offense.

The fifth-ranked Grizzlies, 6-0 overall and 2-0 in Midwestern League play, are averaging a whopping 467 yards of total offense and 52 points per game heading into a clash with the No. 4 Comets (5-1, 2-0 MWL) that could likely determine the MWL South crown.

“I really feel like it’s the outcome of what we’ve built up these past couple of years,” said the 6-foot-1, 210-pound quarterback. “I love every one of my teammates, they’re like brothers to me, and we’re just excited that we’re having a great season. There’s been a lot of hard work put in by the players and the coaches to get here.”

Sayre emulates that as well as any Grizzly.

As a sophomore in only his second year as a signal-caller in full-contact football — he played flag football until serving as a receiver and backup QB in middle school — Sayre took more lumps than anyone. He passed for 949 yards and eight scores but was intercepted eight times and sent to his backside more than he’d like to recount as Ashland went 2-7 and missed the state playoffs.

Last year, Sayre improved his passing totals tremendously, throwing for 1,584 yards with twice as many TDs (16) as interceptions, and the Grizzlies accordingly doubled their win total to finish 4-5 but still outside the playoffs.

As a seasoned veteran this year, Sayre has completed 68 percent of his passes (118-for-173) for 1,501 yards, 25 touchdowns and five interceptions with three games left in the regular season. Deceptively fast, Sayre has also run for 298 yards and one TD on 39 carries.

“Really his biggest growth has been his decision-making,” said Ashland head coach Beau Lehnerz. “As a sophomore things are moving fast so you tend to hang onto the ball and he didn’t want to be wrong. As a junior he got better at anticipating guys getting open but still it was tough to make quick decisions. I think this year now, he trusts the guys around him, he trusts the coaching and he’s making good, quick decisions, whether it’s anticipating a guy being open or throwing the ball away or if nobody’s there just tuck it and run.”

All that from someone who wasn’t willing to throw in the towel despite facing formidable obstacles at each turn two years ago.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Sayre said of his early varsity introduction. “We didn’t have the best record that year but it was definitely a great learning experience, and the seniors and juniors that were there these past two years definitely taught us a lot about how to be good players. Being a sophomore in that position was tough, for sure, but it’s made me grateful, especially now.”

That’s one of several things Sayre is grateful for these days, from the support of his family to the character and ability of his teammates to help make him look good each week.

“It’s super nice to have the guys around me that I have,” he said. “I can dump the ball off 2 yards away and they’ll take it the distance. We’ve got a lot of playmakers on our team and a lot of weapons with guys like DaMario (Watson), Logan (Sanford), Nolan (Rinefort) and Gabe (Ekwall). Especially with the good coaching that we’ve had these past couple of years, these guys have really developed into something special.”

Watson has run for 589 yards and nine TDs to go with 16 catches for 220 yards and five scores, while Sanford, Rinefort and Ekwall join juniors Nathan Carter and Eriq Rodriguez as proficient perimeter targets. Sanford has caught 35 passes for 398 yards and nine TDs, Rinefort has 16 catches for 276 yards and six scores and Ekwall has 17 receptions for 200 yards and two TDs.

Seeing such success from that senior crew has especially pleased Lehnerz this year.

“It’s a credit to those kids for sticking with the process,” said the third-year coach. “If you’re in a situation where you’re forced to play a lot early, some kids eat that up and want that and some kids may get a little intimidated and not see the big picture of where they’ll be in their senior year. It’s awesome to see them rewarded for sticking it out and working hard regardless of how much success they had on the football field.”

Sayre has also received a boost at home as the son of current Southern Oregon University athletic director Matt Sayre, who was a head football coach at College of the Siskiyous (2004) and offensive coordinator at SOU (1996-2003 and 2005) before his administrative role.

The elder Sayre also played quarterback at Eastern Washington and Western Washington, and has been a big influence on his son as his flag football coach and now a volunteer assistant at Ashland.

“Him coming out and helping coach this year as a volunteer, I really appreciate that greatly,” said the 17-year-old standout. “Now that he has a better understanding of our offense, he can help me with my other coaches (Scott Chadick and Antione Perry). The three of them together have really come up with some great game plans and been able to really help me become a better quarterback.”

Sayre said there never was much of a push from his father to play quarterback or really even football in general. It’s definitely not the case where there are non-stop film reviews going on in the Sayre home.

“Of course we talk about football, it’s what we both love, but there’s never been negative experiences,” he said. “My dad never really coaches at home and if he does it’s because I’ve wanted him to. He’s really let me make my own path and always just supported me, and I’m really grateful for that.”

The younger Sayre definitely will be challenged Friday by a Crater squad that allows only 283 yards and 15 points per game and counters with an offense that rivals any with its 455 yards and 50 points per game.

The Comets have won the past two meetings by a combined score of 86-27 (41-13 in 2018 and 45-14 in 2017) and three of the past five games since the series resumed after Crater moved to the 5A level in 2014.

“Crater’s a good team,” said Sayre. “We’re planning to make it a good game, play hard for four quarters and whatever the outcome is, we’ll just see, but I really have a lot of respect for those players and that coaching staff.”

Crater senior quarterback Trever Davis has been equally as effective in sparking his team, passing for 1,216 yards and 19 TDs with only three interceptions to go with 245 yards rushing and two scores.

With Comets running back Gavin Acrey (697 yards, nine TDs) complemented by a deep receiving corps led by Trevor Jaasko (27 catches, 337 yards, four TDs), Dawson Douglas (22 catches, 297 yards, seven TDs) and Chase Sherer (17 catches, 273 yards, six TDs), there’s a good chance that Friday’s game could turn into an offensive shootout.

“We need to make sure we eliminate their big plays,” said Lehnerz of the Comets. “They have some similarities to us with big playmakers. We’ve got to make them grind it out a little bit if we can.”

The last time the teams met with similarly equal footing, Ashland was able to eke out a 6-3 triumph in a 2016 clash that turned unexpectedly defensive.

“I wouldn’t mind that, as long as we get the six,” Lehnerz said with a laugh of a potential repeat to that unconventional contest.

“It’s going to be a battle, we know that,” Lehnerz added on Friday’s 7 p.m. tilt at Dutch Meyer Field. “We told our kids you’ve had some fortunate games where you’ve put some games out of reach early on but this is going to be a fourth-quarter game.”

“When you think about your football career 10 years from now, those are the games you remember the most are those grinders,” he added. “You know you want to win but just being in a battle like that, maybe coming down to the last possession, is pretty memorable.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

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