Ashland plans JV-only football season this spring
ASHLAND — In typical times, Ashland High would not be looking at playing a junior varsity-only football season.
But as Ashland athletic director Karl Kemper pointed out Thursday morning, these obviously aren’t typical times.
Citing several factors, including a concern for player safety in a situation unique to football, Kemper confirmed that the Grizzlies would not be playing a varsity football schedule when Season 2 play begins in March.
“It’s what’s best for our kids,” Kemper said of a decision made last Wednesday after Gov. Kate Brown approved a conditional return of outdoor contact sports. “It’s a no-brainer to me. Anybody that walks out at our practice field would say we’ve got a JV team out there.”
Ashland has seen its football player participation drop, for a variety of reasons, from 45 in the summer to about 25 currently committed to the season, according to Kemper. Of that total, head coach Beau Lehnerz said about 15 are freshmen.
The Grizzlies have already scheduled JV games this spring with Henley and Mazama, and are awaiting word on a potential game against Eagle Point. Kemper said Ashland’s plan is to play four of the six allowed games in this revised 2020-21 season schedule.
“We’re just happy to be playing,” Kemper said when reached by phone. “I have no question about the decision. And the kids that are out there are happy and they’re fine and they’re at peace with it. They’re just as excited as any year that I’ve ever had a football team.”
Kemper added in an email: “The bad news is that the majority of our senior football players will not be able to participate and some of them are choosing to transfer so they can play elsewhere, with our support.”
Ashland was expected to return nine seniors for the delayed fall season and there was rightful concern dating up until last week whether football would be played at all for this school year. Work responsibilities to an increased focus on college plans or just the unknown regarding meaningful playing opportunities put the team at six seniors in January.
Lehnerz said he and his players had many heartfelt meetings during the decision process about what a season could even look like this year given their numbers and limited offseason training opportunities.
“We talked about how we would be playing possibly South Medford and Roseburg but look who’s here,” said Lehnerz, “we have 15 freshmen, six or seven sophomores, six or seven juniors and six or seven seniors. They all understood there’s no way we could play against these teams. That was tough for them to say, but they all got it, they all understood.”
“The (senior and junior) kids wanted to compete,” he added of playing at the varsity level, “but they also knew what was right and what was right for the program. We shed tears and we talked about their legacies and literally the blood, sweat and tears that they’d all poured out for the program. To have it end this way is tough.”
Football is the only sport at Ashland High that will not be playing a varsity schedule this school year, and that move is considered temporary.
“We fully intend to play varsity football in the fall,” said Kemper. “This is just kind of like a little spring ball thing where kids are going to get the opportunity to put on the pads and try different positions and figure out what we’ve got. There’s nothing at stake, there’s no playoffs, so we’re plugging them in at the level that they fit. This is what is best for this group of kids.”
In 2019, the Grizzlies finished second in the Midwestern League’s South Division, going 9-2 overall and 4-1 in MWL play, before being eliminated in the state quarterfinals. Ashland was the 2015 state runner-up at the Class 5A level, and won state titles at the largest classification in 1989, ‘91 and ‘98.
Ashland arguably has been this region’s most affected school in terms of the coronavirus pandemic, with its high school students remaining sidelined under safety precautions well beyond the point others in Southern Oregon opted for a return.
A later start to their training and low overall numbers due to a downturn in public enrollment experienced throughout the Rogue Valley did not help Ashland’s cause, nor did a statewide directive for teams to focus on playing locally within their region this spring.
Although the Grizzlies compete at the 5A level, Kemper said Ashland had hoped to play in a local 4A league but that did not work out.
Playing a varsity football schedule against Ashland’s surrounding 6A and 5A programs — North Medford, South Medford, Grants Pass, Roseburg and Crater — was not seen as a viable alternative for the Grizzlies this spring. While participation has dipped at most schools in the Rogue Valley, Kemper said those 6A/5A programs still field considerably higher numbers than Ashland at this time and the competitive disadvantage in football puts its players at risk for catastrophic injury.
“If you get beat in something else really bad, you get your feelings hurt,” he said. “But if it’s a mismatch in football, you’re putting your kids at physical risk, and we’re just not going to do that.”
Kemper added in an email: “In my professional role, I always try to look through this lens: I will only provide opportunities for kids that I would for my own kid. In this case, both coach Beau Lehnerz and I actually do have sons who play on the team. We both feel that this is an outcome in which we are comfortable as fathers that we are putting our boys in a safe situation to have a positive experience.”
Lehnerz said he understands there will be disappointment with Ashland’s decision, and he’s not immune to those feelings.
“From the top on down as a decision-maker, I get that somebody is going to be unhappy,” he said. “You just hope people kind of understand the reasons for the decisions being made and looking long term. Sometimes that’s a hard pill to swallow, and I know better than anybody because I’ve had to swallow that pill this whole time.”
To offset lower numbers than 6A/5A peers in a few other sports at Ashland, such as girls soccer, baseball and softball, Kemper said the school may do without JV programs to ensure it can field a team at the varsity level for the rest of its sports schedule.