Sep. 2—ASHLAND — Ashland head coach Beau Lehnerz entered the 2021 season knowing full well that his young Grizzlies would likely take their lumps.
Twelve months later, he's approaching 2022 as the chance for his still-young squad to take a step forward. And if they do so, it will come in a new league at a level that Lehnerz and the rest of his coaching staff believe is more appropriate for their current situation.
"It's been a weird two years to say the least," said Lehnerz. "It's just been kind of the declining enrollment overall and just the kids playing football, so the competitor in me sees the tradition of where we already were, but the reality is that our numbers are dwindling and (Class) 4A is a good fit for us."
Even though the Grizzlies went 0-8 a year ago, Lehnerz was able to identify pieces to build around going into 2022 and beyond.
And just like the last time Ashland came off a tough season with few victories after going 2-7 in 2017, a lot of those names are players that are still underclassmen.
The Grizzlies are also hoping that their move down from 5A to the new-look Big Sky Conference will result in more success as compared to the sometimes gauntlet-like schedule of the Midwestern League.
With Phoenix also moving down a level from 4A to 3A, Ashland steps into their neighbor to the north's spot in the Big Sky. The drop won't guarantee Ashland more wins right off the bat, Lehnerz notes, as they have joined a league that also consists of last season's 4A state champion in Marshfield and postseason regulars in Mazama and Henley.
Ironically, the Grizzlies will face former Midwestern League foes in the first two weeks of the season, opening the year on the road Friday night against Eagle Point and then heading up I-5 to North Eugene.
"The kids are excited for the change of scenery," said Lehnerz. "Some of them are like, 'Oh, we're going to dominate,' but we have to show them that Mazama won it two years ago, Marshfield won it last year, Hidden Valley won it in 3A a few years ago — granted, some of those kids have moved on, but those are winning programs.
"It's going to be a super tough league and it's going to be a fight for those three playoff spots."
Ashland graduated just seven seniors from last season's team, and have virtually all of their top skill position players back.
Unlike a year ago when there were a few options at quarterback, there is no question who is leading the Grizzlies under center in 2022: sophomore Jojo Harrower.
Harrower appeared in three games — starting two of them — before things quickly changed when he suffered a season-ending concussion in Ashland's Week 3 loss to Churchill.
"He's always had the athletic ability, so the thing we've talked about over the years has been how you go from being a good quarterback with physical talents to becoming great," said Lehnerz. "It's also so hard to remember he's only a sophomore and he only played 1 1/2 varsity games last year, so he doesn't have a ton of the high school experience under his belt at all. Really, this is going to be his rookie year and we're going to see what he can do, see what he's capable of and manage the expectations."
His top target, 6-foot-3 Caden Negra, is still just a junior and is coming off a season where he earned second-team all-MWL recognition — one of the few sophomores to be included on the list. Negra combines his big frame with top-end speed, which was on display last May when he helped Ashland capture the 4x400 relay title at the 5A track and field state championships.
"He is super athletic and he has relied on his athleticism for a lot of stuff," said Lehnerz. "He's not only fast but also super tough, so he's not afraid to go across the middle and mix it up. We just have to find different ways to get him the ball."
Fellow junior Crosby Lehnerz (6-4, 160) offers the Grizzlies another big target with good hands on the other side of their up-tempo offense, while junior tight end Marcelo Saturen (6-2, 195) is somebody who has had a great summer and will be a threat over the middle, according to Lehnerz.
Junior Gavin White and sophomore Jacob Ortega will handle most of the load at running back for the Grizzlies.
Kekoa Kaho'okaulana, a 6-2, 230-pound sophomore, was an all-MWL honorable mention pick at guard as a freshman. He will lead an offensive line that has four returning starters, with the other three — tackle Ray Hart, center Alan Helsel and guard Jack Bauer — being seniors. The Grizzlies' other projected starter on the offensive line, junior tackle Talon Hernandez, returns after suffering a season-ending injury in Week 1 last year.
"We need to find our rhythm and really find our identity," said Lehnerz. "We have a lot of guys we want to get the ball to and unfortunately there's only one ball, but I think it's on us to be creative with a little bit of smoke and mirrors. We want to make sure we're not one-dimensional — we have a passing threat and that's great, but we have a great O-line, we have a couple of good running backs and those things can work off each other."
The Grizzlies return five starters on defense as Lehnerz looks to a group of players who will see bigger roles this season compared to 2021.
It isn't about a lack of athleticism, Lehnerz said, but more to do with players continuing to pick up the scheme and then executing it.
With the desire to make a good first impression in their new league, there's also a matter of the Grizzlies simply trying not to get too far ahead of themselves.
"There's part of me thinking this could be a big year," said Lehnerz, "but then there's also part of me that says we've been in this situation a little bit and I don't want to put too much on the kids, I don't want them to put too much on themselves. We're in a process and these sophomore guys who are now juniors are thinking big-time, but it's a big step going from where we were last year to this year.
"We're in a new league, so we want to be competitive, we want to execute in all three phases and we just need to understand there will be ups and downs and how we deal with it is probably going to be the biggest determinant on our season."
Beau Lehnerz (sixth year, 15-22)
ASSISTANTS: Scott Chadick (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks), Eric Sullivan (special teams/ linebackers/running backs), Bubba Rylance (linemen), Austin Brower (linemen), Tim Hernandez (receivers/defensive backs), Greg White (offensive quality control).
2021 LEAGUE RECORD: 0-7 (eighth, MWL).
2021 OVERALL RECORD: 0-8.
PREDICTED FINISH THIS YEAR: Fifth.
6North Bend 27
0Springfield 2 (forfeit)
6Eagle Point 56
OFFENSE (9): Receiver Caden Negra (6-3, 175, jr.), tackle Ray Hart (6-0, 180, sr.), guard Kekoa Kaho'okaulana (6-2, 230, so.), center Alan Helsel (5-10, 200, sr.), guard Jack Bauer (6-0, 215, sr.), tackle Talon Hernandez (6-3, 190, jr.), running back Gavin White (5-9, 170, jr.), quarterback Jojo Harrower (6-3, 175, so.), receiver Crosby Lehnerz (6-4, 160, jr.).
DEFENSE (5): Linebacker Jacob Ortega (6-1, 220, so.), end Ray Hart, tackle Jack Bauer, safety Noah Schrader (5-9, 170, jr.), cornerback Crosby Lehnerz.
Tight end/linebacker Marcelo Saturen (6-2, 195, jr.), lineman Dutch Linerud (6-3, 175, so.), receiver/tight end/linebacker Wilson Wildman (6-1, 170, sr.).
Sept. 2vs Eagle Point in La Pine, 7 p.m.
Sept. 9at North Eugene, 7 p.m.
Sept. 16HENLEY, 7 p.m.
Sept. 23HIDDEN VALLEY, 7 p.m.
Sept. 30at Mazama, 7 p.m.
Oct. 7MARSHFIELD, 7 p.m.
Oct. 14at Sweet Home, 7 p.m.
Oct. 21at North Bend, 7 p.m.
Oct. 28KLAMATH UNION, 7 p.m.
Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.