FOOTBALL '19: Ashland sets sights on rebound
Ashland has a history of success in the years it hosts Japan for the Pacific Rim Bowl, but that’s not the only reason the Grizzlies are optimistic this season.
Ashland head coach Beau Lehnerz will roll out a team he says has shown tremendous explosion during the team’s offseason 7-on-7 rounds, utilizing speedsters like receiver Gabe Ekwall and running back DaMario Watson.
And regarding Ashland’s 45-18 loss to Japan in the Pacific Rim Bowl, Lehnerz says it was a wake-up call, one he hopes will ultimately give Ashland a head start that proves beneficial. That was certainly the case in 2011, 2013 and 2015 — years in which Ashland advanced to the Class 5A final, semifinals and quarterfinals, respectively. Of course, those Grizzly teams also won their PRB matchups, but Lehnerz is confident the Grizzlies will learn from mistakes made in the July 27 exhibition game.
“Throughout the whole summer and leading up to (the PRB) we played the most 7-on-7 that we’ve ever played,” Lehnerz said. “We went up to Portland, up to Bend and then against Rogue Valley teams with our regular summer schedule. So, we played a lot of 7-on-7 and our timing got to be really good, and there were times we looked really explosive and kind of what we were hoping for. But we also realized that’s 7-on-7 no pass rush and other things.
“The Pacific Rim Bowl was a really good eye-opener. Because it was like, OK, now how are you going to deal with that big defensive end that’s coming around the edge and still trying to get that ball out? So I feel like that’s going to be something great to teach off of.”
Leading the offense for the second year in a row will be senior quarterback Rieger Sayre, who filled in for the injured starter early in his sophomore season and has been a fixture under center ever since. At 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, Sayre has a strong enough arm to make all the throws and is an elusive runner when passing plays turn into scrambles.
He’ll have options galore this season, and ones he should be very comfortable with as Ashland’s top skill players, including Ekwall, Watson, receiver Nathan Carter and tight end Nagali Jackson, return to run the Grizzlies’ spread offense.
“So our skill positions are veterans and explosive, so our jobs as coaches is finding ways to get those guys the ball, to balance the ball and to balance the offense,” Lehnerz said.
Watson showcased his potential during a win over Ridgeview last season, when he rushed for 216 yards and four touchdowns, but the success of the offense as a whole may hinge on the Grizzlies’ offensive line, which is replacing three of five starters. The tackles, seniors Finn Hayes and Joah Margulis, are back to protect against edge rushers, and Lehnerz says the rest, including center Jake Robitz, played enough last season to earn valuable experience.
If that line can hold its own, the Grizzlies believe they could have something special.
“I feel like DeMario is one of the better running backs in the conference, but defenses are going to have to decide how they want to play us,” said Lehnerz, whose team averaged 24.7 points per game last season. “We’ve got four guys that run under a five-flat 40 and guys that were on the sprint relay team, so they’re going to decide how they’re going to cover us. So I see us being able to get some quick passes and just get the ball out to the receivers, get it in their hands and get a couple blocks. So I feel like our passing game can open up our running game — that can be a general game plan, without sharing too many secrets.”
Lehnerz added that he’s looking for Sayre to take the next step in his development and clean up his decision making.
“The last year and a half, (Sayre’s) had a really good arm, a really strong arm — he developed that as a freshman,” Lehnerz said. “But his thing is, can I read defenses? And so I feel like he’s getting better at that, developing chemistry with his receivers. He’s got pretty much four guys to throw to when he drops back and it’s just about reading the defense and finding the right guy, and if he hits the open guy it’s going to be a big play for us. I think he’s just got to make sure that he doesn’t try to do too much.”
Defensively, Ashland, which runs a 4-2-5, will rely on many of the same players, including Hayes (linebacker), Ekwall (cornerback), Watson (safety) and senior Nolan Rinefort, a free safety who will play receiver on offense. Rinefort may be the key to the whole operation, though like the other side of the ball, it’s a fairly experienced group at the skill positions.
Austin Harris will be looking to pressure quarterbacks from his defensive end spot, Jackson will be at the other end and James LaFond, Ashland’s biggest player (6-3, 265) will try to clog up the middle from the tackle position.
Ashland’s athleticism in the defensive backfield bodes well for its ability to cover, so whether the Grizzlies can slow down a potent rushing attack will likely be paramount to the team’s success. Ashland opponents averaged 33.4 points per game last season, a number that rarely yields playoff success, which is the Grizzlies’ goal.
Lehnerz says part of his team’s defensive strategy is to take advantage of its strength, which is Rinefort. The 5-11, 185-pound playmaker also serves as Ashland’s kicker and punter and will be considered a viable option to attempt a field goal whenever the team faces a fourth down inside the 35-yard line, Lehnerz said. His most important role is probably on defense, however.
“(Rinefort’s) a ballhawk, he makes good plays on the ball in the air but also he’s a guy basically we’re trying to funnel all the run plays to because he’s a great run player as well playing from the free safety spot,” Lehnerz said.
As a safety measure, the Grizzly coaches teach the hawk tackling drill, which keeps the head away from contact. It’s patterned after rugby tackling.
“He’s (Rinefort) about as good as they come with what we’ve been teaching, just taking the legs out, putting the shoulder pads on the thighs and keeping the heads out of contact,” said Lehnerz.
After finishing 4-5 last season, including 1-4 in the Midwestern League South, Ashland is looking to make a big move up the standings and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016, when the Grizzlies won the MWL and advanced to the state quarterfinals. That’s a tall order considering they play in one of the toughest leagues in the state, especially since only the top two teams in the MWL South are guaranteed a postseason berth.
Lehnerz, however, believes Ashland has the tools to get there. The question, he believes, is whether those pieces can find a way to merge through the ups and downs of the regular season.
“Talent, potential, we feel like we have the guys to play with anybody,” Lehnerz said. “But can we come together as a team, face adversity? If we get smoked out and we have to go to North Bend or Lakeview or whatever, can we let that roll off our back? That’s the biggest question: can we maximize potential and come together as a team?”
Beau Lehnerz (third year, 6-12).
ASSISTANTS: Antione Perry (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks), Austin Brower (defensive line), Matt Boudreaux (receivers), Matt Sayre (receivers), Ronald Rylance (offensive line/defensive line), Eric Sullivan (special teams coordinator), Tito Soriano (defensive backs), Greg Lemhouse (running backs/defensive line), Scott Chadick (quarterbacks/receivers/defensive backs).
2018 LEAGUE RECORD: 1-4 (fifth, MWL South).
2018 OVERALL RECORD: 4-5.
PREDICTED FINISH THIS YEAR: Fourth.
17Eagle Point 52
42North Eugene 21
17South Eugene 27
OFFENSE (9): Wide receiver Gabe Ekwall (6-2, 195, sr.), quarterback Rieger Sayre (6-1, 210, sr.), lineman Vinny Pippa (5-9, 220, sr.), running back DaMario Watson (5-9, 190, sr.), tackle Finn Hayes (6-2, 205, sr.), tackle Joah Margulis (6-2, 190, sr.), receiver Nathan Carter (6-3, 170, jr.), tight end Nagali Jackson (5-10, 185, sr.), receiver/kicker Nolan Rinefort (5-11, 185, sr.).
DEFENSE (9): End Austin Harris (5-10, 175, sr.), linebacker Finn Hayes, safety DaMario Watson, cornerback Gabe Ekwall, end Nagali Jackson, cornerback Eriq Rodriguez (5-7, 140, jr.), free safety/punter Nolan Rinefort, safety Hayden Ellis (6-3, 190, jr.), defensive tackle James LaFond (6-3, 265, jr.).
OTHER NOTABLES: Tight end/defensive end Logan Sanford (6-4, 205, sr.), running back Austin Harris, running back/linebacker Will Hackett (5-9, 220, so.), receiver/defensive back Alex Spencer (5-10, 145, sr.), offensive line/defensive line Jake Robitz (5-10, 205, jr.), offensive tackle/defensive end Cooper Nangle (6-2, 205, jr.).
Sept. 6at Willamette, 7 p.m.
Sept. 13SPRINGFIELD, 7 p.m.
Sept. 20at Ridgeview, 7 p.m.
Sept. 27at Redmond, 7 p.m.
Oct. 4CHURCHILL, 7 p.m.
Oct. 11EAGLE POINT, 7 p.m.
Oct. 18at Crater, 7 p.m.
Oct. 25at North Eugene, 7 p.m.
Nov. 1SOUTH EUGENE, 7 p.m.
Reach sports reporter Joe Zavala at 541-776-4469 or email@example.com.