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PREP FOOTBALL: Ashland eager to meet the Millers

North hosts Bend tonight; South faces test at Sheldon

Ashland football coach Beau Lehnerz knows what outsiders may be thinking about his Grizzlies.

Winless in three games, including a 32-0 shutout loss to Churchill last week, Ashland hasn’t exactly been able to light up the scoreboard thus far.

That scoreboard, however, is the furthest thing from Lehnerz’s mind when it comes to how he and his coaching staff are judging this year’s inexperienced crew.

“When people look at our record, they might say you’re not a very good team,” said Lehnerz, “but we’re persevering, we’re getting better, we’re dealing with adversity, and that’s kind of been a theme really for us since the summer.”

With so many younger players, and not many at that, Ashland made the tough decision this past spring to forgo a varsity season to play at the junior varsity level. The Grizzlies went 3-1 during that span, fostering good camaraderie in hopes of laying a good foundation for better days to come.

That spirit has still been there this fall, even if the wins have been a little harder to come by.

“I think we’ve improved every game as a whole,” said Lehnerz. “Maybe we need to improve specifically in certain areas offensively, defensively or in special teams but, as a whole, I think we’re getting better and those younger kids are getting a lot of good experience.”

The Grizzlies (0-3, 0-2 Midwestern League) look forward to another chance to get better at 7 tonight when they play host to Springfield.

In other local Class 5A action, Crater and Eagle Point each have homecoming contests against Willamette and Thurston, respectively.

At the 6A level, Southwest Conference play begins for South Medford at Sheldon and Grants Pass will play host to Roseburg, while North Medford entertains Bend at Spiegelberg Stadium.

At the lower levels, Phoenix is at Hidden Valley, Cascade Christian at Siuslaw and St. Mary’s plays host to South Umpqua at U.S. Cellular Community Park.

The Millers (1-4, 1-3) offer a look closer to the image Ashland sees in the mirror each day than what it has previously faced, so there is guarded optimism for the program’s first 5A varsity win since 2019.

That said, the Grizzlies are still holding onto a mantra that expects to serve them well regardless of opponent this season.

“We really are doing our best not to talk about wins and losses but just about getting better day-by-day and even play-by-play or practice-by-practice,” said Lehnerz. “We’re looking at small picture as opposed to big picture. That will come, but right now it’s about taking care of the next thing that’s right in front of you.”

Ashland limps into tonight’s matchup after a physical affair with the Lancers, but Lehnerz said his team remains upbeat and eager to tackle their next challenge. Credit for that, he added, goes to a seven-member senior class that has set a positive tone for the underclassmen.

Seniors Colson Abel and Ronin Kimbrough rarely come off the field and have been especially important.

“Both of those kids had older brothers in the program so they’ve kind of seen what the traditions are and what some expectations are,” said Lehnerz, “and now they’ve gotten their turn to kind of lead that.”

Kimbrough expects to get the start at quarterback for injured freshman Jojo Harrower, who suffered a concussion against Churchill. Kimbrough was in line to be Ashland’s quarterback in the spring but a broken arm suffered during 7-on-7 play left him to a receiver role while Jackson Kemper took the reins.

While Harrower has passed for 521 yards thus far, Kimbrough provides a different dynamic with his ability to run and throw.

“The goal is to be a little bit more two-dimensional (tonight) as opposed to relying on the pass,” said Lehnerz.

Kemper, Tripp Repp, Patrick Latham, Attikus Hayes and Angel Padilla are Ashland’s other seniors who have been vital in keeping the team focused on incremental steps forward.

“The upper class tells me they’re having fun, and I’m so proud to hear that,” said Lehnerz. “They could very easily be like this is my senior year and we’re 0-3 and this is not fun, but they’re having a good time. There’s something going on that’s right — and I wish I could put my finger on it — but I think it’s just the kids that we have, they love football.

“If you’re having fun and you love football and you love being with your teammates and all the other things that we do that are part of our culture and our tradition, that’s the most important part. Obviously we’d like to win, but enjoying the work and culture together, that’s hopefully the thing that they’re going to remember the most as they move on.”

BEND AT NORTH MEDFORD: North Medford (2-1) will look to build on consecutive weeks where, to its credit, the Black Tornado has been able to handle adversity in order to lock down narrow victories.

“Obviously we know that we shouldn’t have put ourselves in those situations,” said first-year North coach Nathan Chin, “but at the same time it is building some strong character and belief that our kids can be in any game regardless.”

“I think we have a gritty group of kids and a group of kids that love to compete,” he added. “They’re doing a good job of kind of staying in the moment to be able to either shut a team out and not let them score or on the flip side be able to put the ball in the end zone when needed.”

Senior quarterback Mason Warren has gotten more comfortable in the pocket and been the beneficiary of the big-play capabilities from senior Bryce Dyer and sophomore AJ Pugliano, who each have about 240 yards receiving and have proven they can take even a short pass the distance.

Warren has completed 32 of 52 passes for 540 yards, six touchdowns and one interception, with junior Ty Pugliano giving the offense a boost at 6.1 yards per carry thus far.

Defensively, North will have its hands full with a double-wing Bend (2-2) attack that has already given Grants Pass and South Medford fits through the hard running of Malakai Nutter, Ben Martin and Jack Sorenson.

SOUTH MEDFORD AT SHELDON: Few teams have faced the gauntlet of top-flight competition as South Medford (0-4) thus far so obviously the Panthers’ introduction to SWC play should be no different.

The Irish (3-1) boast a potent offense that averages 400 yards per game and is guided by junior quarterback Brock Thomas, who is eerily similar to former Sheldon QB and current assistant Jordy Johnson. Thomas leads the SWC with 577 yards rushing and 10 TDs on 62 carries, and leads the conference in passing at 62-for-96 for 838 yards and seven scores. The 6-foot, 175-pounder does have six interceptions in four games.

Luke Leighton and Zach McEwen provide key targets on the perimeter, with Grafton Robinson also heavily involved in the passing game out of the backfield.

South Medford has been able to make some strides in recent weeks but will need to shore up some issues that continue to hinder ultimate progress. The Panthers were unable to get much-needed defensive stops last week as Lakeridge dominated time of possession, and had one lapse lead to an easy score by the Pacers.

Offensively, junior quarterback Deacon Edgar has made the most of limited time in the pocket to complete 46 of 93 passes for 644 yards, six TDs and four interceptions. Edgar and Carson Joe have done well to spark a stagnant running game in the past two weeks, with Andrew Walker and Colton Samis remaining prime weapons on the perimeter with double-digit receptions.

WILLAMETTE AT CRATER: Crater senior Caden Lasater added two more touchdowns to his resume a week ago and continues to be a driving force on both sides of the ball.

The Comets (3-1, 3-0 MWL) will look to break out offensively against a winless Willamette team still trying to get its feet on the ground after a coaching change only weeks before the season.

Javon Smith has completed half of his passes for 161 yards in two weeks at QB and gives Crater versatility in its run game.

Lasater has run for 342 yards and three TDs and caught 10 passes for 125 yards and two more scores.

The Comets have been adept at getting takeaways with 10 thus far under the guidance of head coach Berk Brown, but also been bitten by the turnover bug with eight thus far.

Lasater and Tony Downes each came up with two sacks last week and Mike Sherrill added another, with Jimmy Jordahl adding constant pressure off the edge.

THURSTON AT EAGLE POINT: Top-ranked Thurston has certainly earned its distinction despite playing only two games thus far, with the Colts yet to allow a point while totaling 104 of their own.

Homecoming games often carry a little extra magic for the home team and Eagle Point (2-2, 2-1 MWL) will be looking for some of that at Eagle Stadium when it comes to slowing a relentless Colts attack that features tight end Jacob Newell.

The Eagles have made great strides under head coach Erik Johnson and boast an offense that averages 309 yards to go with a defense that has allowed only 218 yards per game with eight takeaways.

Senior running back Isaiah Hill went for 70 yards rushing one week ago but that stat could easily trend toward junior David Brown and go even higher as the duo gives EP a solid one-two punch at around 5 yards per carry apiece.

Junior QB Caiden Lacey is more than willing to test the secondary, going 63-for-105 for 792 yards, seven TDs and five interceptions, and big targets like Jimmie Copeland and Wyatt Graves will be pivotal in helping keep the chains moving and Thurston’s offense off the field.

Copeland hauled in six passes for 148 yards and one score in last week’s tough 21-20 loss to Mazama.

Have a story idea? Reach sports editor Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Ashland senipr quarterback Ronin Kimbrough, seen here in a file photo, and the Grizzlies will host Springfield tonight at Walter A. Phillips Field. Photo by Denise Baratta