ashland.news
June 21, 2024

Football: Ashland stands ready for redemption

Ashland running back Gavin White cuts through the defense during a recent preseason practice. Photo by Bob Palermini
August 24, 2023

Bevy of returning skill players, drive to erase bad taste of 2-7 season propel Grizzlies into 2023

By Kris Henry, Rogue Valley Times

No team should be more equipped to start the 2023 high school football season than the Ashland Grizzlies.

Beyond returning nearly every starter on each side of the ball, the Grizzlies have two other pivotal factors on their side.

First, nothing gets your attention and fuels the fire more than when you’re coming off a disappointing season after you expected to dominate.

Second, the ability to play in the Pacific Rim Bowl in Japan provided Ashland a live-action look a few weeks ago that no one else will be able to duplicate

“Everybody’s going to have a jamboree and a scrimmage within their team,” said seventh-year Ashland head coach Beau Lehnerz, “but you don’t really get a true sense of where you’re at in all facets until you play the game.”

“A lot of time you’re making those adjustments after Week 1,” he added. “We’ve got the full game, we’ve got special teams, we got a look at all of our players because everybody played in Japan so we’re able to make some corrections and adjustments and depth decisions based off a real game. It’s huge.”

Ashland lost 47-14 in that exhibition game overseas, but the final score wasn’t necessarily indicative of how successful the Grizzlies can be this season in their second stint at the Class 4A level in the Big Sky Conference.

“They were good,” Lehnerz said of the Ashland all-star team. “The score of the game was rough but in the third quarter it was a 20-14 game. We gave up two long kickoff returns for a touchdown after we put some of our younger kids on special teams, but we were doing some things that we were happy about.”

For a team that struggled with adversity a year ago despite moving down from the 5A ranks, the trip to Japan offered another side benefit beyond depth charts and rotational decisions.

“One of the great things about Japan is it was the ultimate road trip and there was adversity to deal with,” said Lehnerz. “As much fun and how awesome of an experience as it was, we were practicing in 90-degree humidity and we’re in a foreign country and the kids didn’t eat much breakfast because they didn’t know what it was. We had all kinds of reasons to say why practice should be bad (leading up to the big game) but we really rallied on, ‘OK, now how do we overcome this?’”

Ashland football players carry out a tackling drill during a preseason practice. Photo by Bob Palermini

Players and coaches also didn’t stay with host families this time around due to COVID concerns, so living in dorms forced Ashland to grow even tighter as a unit.

“I think helping create those bonds will help kids, hopefully, hold each other accountable,” said Lehnerz, “and help with the mental toughness when things go wrong, because they will.”

More than anything, Lehnerz hopes Ashland will be able to take care of the minute parts of the game after that kind of escaped the Grizzlies and led to a 2-7 season last year.

“Being 2-7 was disappointing,” said Lehnerz, in comments echoed by players in offseason meetings. “It was a gut punch and a reality check, and every kid that I talked to, we looked at how we should’ve been at the very least 4-5 and could’ve been 5-4. A lot of times we were up or in the game and we didn’t finish. Our biggest thing this offseason has been doing whatever it takes. The big thing for us is actually the little things, like being disciplined with our workouts, with our diet, with our sleep and then executing our plays.”

Nine returning starters on each side of the ball, plus the addition of a two-way starter at Crater in Kayden Gardner, give credence to Ashland being in the discussion for a potential Big Sky championship this fall.

A bulk of the team has been playing together since they were in third grade, and the pieces can be pretty dynamic when you consider running back Gavin White, quarterback Jojo Harrower and receivers Caden Negra, Crosby Lehnerz, Noah Shrader and Marcelo Saturen highlighting the skill positions.

“We haven’t had a full deal — with all four receivers and a running back — where all five guys are dudes in a long time,” said Lehnerz. “And the receivers can all play all four positions — they can play outside or inside — and still do really well, so we’ll look to get the mismatches we can wherever.”

“If there’s any pressure to be had,” added the coach, “it’s pressure on us coaches to not mess it up. We’ve got such good players and good experience, we’ve just got to make the game simple for them and let them just play fast.”

The 5-foot-10, 170-pound White put his versatility on display last year in about as balanced of an effort as one could ever hope for out of the backfield. White rushed 108 times for 513 yards and seven touchdowns and also made 35 receptions for 457 yards and six scores to finish as the team’s yardage leader in both categories.

“Gavin’s a special player,” said coach Lehnerz. “He’s been doing what he does, really, since third grade. He’s always had speed and great agility and great vision, and he’s been a really hard worker.”

“He can catch the ball; he can block,” added the coach. “He’s a guy that can take the ball 80 yards — and he has — at any point. He’s added that strength to his game now that he can run over some guys or make guys look bad on defense by putting a stiff-arm into them.”

Ashland football players take part in a tackling drill during a preseason practice. Photo by Bob Palermini

Among a host of eye-catching offensive performers, White likely carries the biggest predictor in Ashland’s season off his weekly production.

“We’ve got some great receivers and tall guys and people are going to have to defend that,” said coach Lehnerz, “but we want to run the ball. We want to give Gavin the ball and get him 20 to 25 touches per game. That will just open things up more for our receivers.”

“Gavin’s our No. 1, really,” he added. “That will be our gauge of how the season is going. If he’s getting 80 to 100 yards per game rushing and receiving, we’re probably headed in the right direction.”

Harrower, a 6-4 junior, benefits from so many weapons at his disposal but will look to dial it in a little this season and focus on just getting the ball out quickly and making good decisions.

“The big thing with Jo is he wants the big plays now,” said Lehnerz, “and we just need to really just get the ball into our playmakers’ hands. He’ll have five on the field at a time, so he’s got to make good, quick decisions and really put the pressure on the defense by getting the ball out right away. That will then lead to, OK, now we’ve got a home run shot or whatever.”

Harrower completed 61% of his passes last year (164-for-269) and finished with 19 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. He also showed an ability to escape oncoming defenders and get out into the open field to pick up first downs with his legs.

On the receiving end, Crosby Lehnerz led the wideouts with 39 catches for 414 yards and three TDs, while Saturen (26 catches, 364 yards, five TDs), Caden Negra (29 catches, 342 yards, three TDS) and Shrader (15 catches, 263 yards) each supplied shining moments after Ashland found itself playing catch-up in several games.

Saturn, Negra and Lehnerz provide lengthy targets that stand around 6-3 on average.

Depth is a concern on the offensive line, where seniors Talon Hernandez and Nathan Shrader and junior Kekoa Kaho’okaulana return to set the standard in the trenches. Dutch Linerud, a junior, and sophomore Liam Puckett proved their value to the starting unit in Japan.

Gardner was a late addition to the program but having a versatile 6-2, 210-pound senior with a few varsity seasons under his belt is certainly a plus for a team needing size and depth. Gardner can play tight end or as a slot receiver, and turn around make a big impact at linebacker or as defensive end.

“He’s a pretty versatile kid so we’re excited to use him,” said coach Lehnerz. “A lot of times we don’t get transfers that can get right in there and be major contributors, so we’re excited about that.”

Junior Jacob Ortega also expects to be a focal part of a revamped 3-3 defense as a hybrid safety/linebacker that Ashland hopes to unleash and “find the ball and wreak havoc.”

GRIZZLIES

HEAD COACH

Beau Lehnerz (seventh year, 17-29)

GENERAL INFORMATION

ASSISTANTS: Eric Sullivan (offensive coordinator), Scott Chadick (quarterbacks/defensive backs), Austin Brower (linemen), Tim Hernandez (receivers/defensive backs), Tito Soriano (receivers/safeties), Alaric Kaul (running backs/linebackers), Gilberto Roman (linemen), Greg White (quality control).

2022 LEAGUE RECORD: 1-5 (T5th, Big Sky)

2022 OVERALL RECORD: 2-7.

2022 RESULTS

ASHLAND OPPONENTS

33 Eagle Point 54

41 North Eugene 38

19 Henley 48

20 Hidden Valley 27

0 (Forfeit) Mazama 2

8 Marshfield 45

19 Sweet Home 28

27 North Bend 33

39 Klamath Union 36

RETURNING STARTERS

OFFENSE (9): Running back Gavin White (5-10, 170, sr.), quarterback Jojo Harrower (6-4, 180, jr.), receiver Crosby Lehnerz (6-4, 170, sr.), receiver Caden Negra (6-3, 185, sr.), receiver Noah Shrader (5-9, 170, sr.), tight end Marcelo Saturen (6-2, 195, sr.), left tackle Talon Hernandez (6-3, 185, sr.), right guard Kekoa Kaho’okaulana (6-3, 235, jr.), center Nathan Shrader (5-10, 170, sr.).

DEFENSE (9): Linebacker Jacob Ortega (6-3, 230, jr.), defensive end Dutch Linerud (6-3, 195, jr.), cornerback Crosby Lehnerz, cornerback Gavin White, free safety Noah Shrader, strong safety Caden Negra, linebacker Talon Hernandez, linebacker Marcelo Saturen, nose guard Kekoa Kaho’okaulana.

OTHER NOTABLES

Tight end/linebacker Kayden Gardner (6-2, 210, sr.), left guard/defensive lineman Liam Puckett (6-0, 205, so.), tight end/linebacker Ayden Welch (5-10, 180, so.), lineman/linebacker Aven Staten (5-10, 185, so.).

2023 SCHEDULE

Sept. 1 EAGLE POINT, 7 p.m.

Sept. 8 NORTH EUGENE, 7 p.m.

Sept. 15 at Henley, 7 p.m.

Sept. 22 at Hidden Valley, 7 p.m.

Sept. 29 MAZAMA, 7 p.m.

Oct. 6 at Marshfield, 7 p.m.

Oct. 13 SWEET HOME, 7 p.m.

Oct. 20 NORTH BEND, 7 p.m.

Oct. 27 at Klamath Union, 7 p.m.

Reach sports editor Kris Henry at khenry@rv-times.com, 458-488-2035 or via Twitter @Kris_Henry. This story first appeared in the Rogue Valley Times.

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