Grizzlies hope athleticism, experience pay off in 2018

    Larry Stauth Jr./For the Daily TidingsAshland High junior wide receiver Gabe Ekwall (3) will be the main target for junior quarterback Rieger Sayre during the 2018 season.

    After finishing his first season as Ashland High’s head football coach with a 2-7 record, it wasn’t back-to-the-drawing-board mode for Beau Lehnerz.

    Instead, as he prepared for year No. 2, it was more subtle changes.

    Both in terms of what the Grizzlies do on the field, and also simply how they approach the 2018 season.

    He can already see the differences, too.

    “I just feel like it’s way different,” he said. “The kids, we demanded that they show that they’re committed through workouts and community service and other things. The attitude and the buy-in alone is better right now, so that’s kind of what we’re riding.”

    Whether the concentration on the Grizzlies’ buy-in results in wins in the new-look Midwestern League remains to be seen.

    But the changes that Lehnerz and his coaching staff have made will be looked upon for immediate results.

    “We went over things and thought, what are things we can continue doing that we liked; some things we need to make changes to and make it comfortable for us,” Lehnerz said. “I feel like the change has been to do what suits us. We tailored things to our skill set and what we’re capable of doing, but our biggest thing was getting ahold of the kids and saying, ‘Hey, it’s a new season, we’ve been together for our second season now and I feel like there’s more of a buy-in than we were able to get last year.”

    When it comes to tailoring things to his team’s talent on offense, it starts with the right arm of quarterback Rieger Sayre.

    The 2017 season was supposed to be one in which Sayre, now a junior, got plenty of reps on the JV level with then-senior Cade Swenson being the starter on varsity.

    But an opening-week shoulder injury to Swenson forced Sayre into emergency duty. He ended up playing in eight games, completing 59 percent of his passes, throwing for 947 yards and nine touchdowns.

    “That was kinda like learning on the run,” Lehnerz said. “We took our lumps, he took a lot of lumps but got a lot of valuable experience. This year, he’s been getting stronger, working on arm strength, but also learning how to have poise.”

    Sayre has a solid yet young group of targets to throw to as well, led by the outside receiver combo of junior Gabe Ekwall and sophomore Nate Carter.

    Both combine size and speed and will provide Sayre with big bodies to throw to.

    “Just getting the ball to him, he’s going to make something happen right away,” Lehnerz said of Ekwall, who averaged 13 yards a catch in 2017. “We’re hoping that with the outside, people have to pick their poison (between Ekwall and Carter).”

    The Grizzlies also return their top two running backs from last season, juniors DaMario Watson and Austin Harris. Watson and Harris, a duo that Lehnerz describes as a power and speed tandem, combined to run for just under 700 yards last season.

    Of course, a lot of the Grizzlies’ success will be dictated by what they do up front on both sides of the ball.

    The Grizzlies’ offensive line — led by two-way senior standout Myles Montgomery — needs to give Sayre time to throw and open holes for Watson to run through. On defense, the front will be asked to set a tone so their playmakers at linebacker and in the defensive backfield will have opportunities to make plays.

    “One of the scheme changes is what kind of linemen we have,” Lehnerz said. “Ashland’s never had the big guys like (6-foot-5, 260-pound) Drake Morey last year, so it’s more speed. If we can convince the linemen to block for two seconds, protect the quarterback for two seconds to get the ball out and then get down the field and find a block, we’ll be better because of it. We’re not going to smash-mouth too many teams, so using speed and using angles, that will help us do what we want to do.”

    The Grizzlies will play a little more of a four-man front after going primarily with a 3-4 defense last season.

    But when it comes to having playmakers back, Lehnerz knows sees potential on both sides of the ball.

    “Our talent is speed, so how can we utilize our speed on offense, defense and special teams,” Lehnerz said. “That’s been part of the Ashland thing forever, but how can we utilize that more. We have guys on the sidelines with all these abilities, so how can we utilize them in a way to get them on the field.”

    Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.

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