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Grizzlies confident heading into offseason

Entering the 2018 season, Ashland head coach Beau Lehnerz didn’t just want to see his team win more games than it did a season ago, but try and do so with a different kind of mindset.

After nine weeks, some ups and downs along the way, and the Grizzlies doubling their win total from a season ago, Lehnerz feels like that main goal was accomplished.

“The overall energy, attitude and effort of the kids was awesome —and I’m pretty that’s something we talked about at the very beginning,” Lehnerz said. “Generally when you have a season of sub-.500, kids and coaches can’t wait until the end of the season, but this was different. The kids were upset the season was over so fast and are already hungry to get back on the field next year.”

Ashland, which finished the 2018 season 4-5 overall, concluded the year with by winning two out of its last three games after starting play in the Midwestern League’s South Division with three straight losses.

Those losses just so happened to be against three of the toughest teams Ashland faced all season — league champion Churchill, Crater and Eagle Point — in back-to-back weeks.

But even with the uphill battle the Grizzlies faced following their 0-3 start to MWL South play, they didn’t fold.

Instead, they played some of their best football of the year to close out the season, according to Lehnerz.

“Obviously you’d like to have more wins for validation, but I really liked the way the season ended,” Lehnerz said. “Looking back, our last three games were probably some of the best football that we played — especially defensively, holding teams to about 16 points in the last three games.”

With just seven seniors to replace from the 2018 squad, there won’t be much scrambling to fill a bunch of holes on the roster like in previous years.

As weird as it may be for Lehnerz — who was an assistant under Charlie Hall for 10 seasons before being named head coach in 2017 — to not coach a Montgomery next year with the graduation of senior linebacker Myles Montgomery, a lot of the names and faces from 2018 will be back again.

Lehnerz is well aware of the fact that just about every one of his top skill position players will be back..

That’s the luxury of having a core group that is so heavily populated with sophomores and juniors.

The only two starters the Grizzlies will lose up front are on the offensive line. On defense, that number isn’t much bigger, “three or four depending on how you look at it,” is how Lehnerz described it.

“The goal is continual improvement,” Lehnerz said. “Guys who got all-league things, that’s got to be a motivator rather than a thing to rest on. We have that solid group, but we need everybody who’s still in the program to come back — and then some.”

In his first year as the Grizzlies’ full-time starter under center, Rieger Sayre threw for 1,584 yards and 16 touchdowns with only eight interceptions in nine games.

Running back DaMario Watson averaged over five yards a carry on his way to 829 yards on the ground and scored 10 total TDs (8 rushing, 2 receiving).

Both will be seniors next season. Same goes for the Grizzlies’ top receiver, Gabe Ekwall. Some of Sayre’s other top targets, Nathan Carter and Eriq Rodriguez, will be juniors.

The key for all of them, especially Sayre as he enters his senior season, will be to continue to develop.

“Rieger, in a way, had some ups and downs, but he was in a tough situation because he’s got a lot of talent and we see that as coaches and we see what more he has to offer, so we were probably a little impatient with him in terms of expecting some more right now,” Lehnerz said. “But he’s got a really high ceiling and he played well, made some good plays for us. The thing we’re going to need from him is to make the quick pass, the quick read, hit the guy now because it doesn’t always need to be a big pass.”

With the way the Grizzlies ended the season, it’s easy to see why Lehnerz is thinking the way he is.

Ashland, even with its struggles, showed flashes of what it could be over the course of the 2018 season.

As the Grizzlies head into the offseason, how they closed the season is something their head coach thinks will stick with them.

And don’t you kid yourself — the countdown to the 2019 Pacific Rim Bowl has already begun.

(It’s in 267 days, by the way.)

“If (the end of the season) goes a different way, it probably has a bad aftertaste and the offseason could be rough with doubting me and doubting themselves,” Lehnerz said. “We were talking about it at South Eugene about John Wooden’s intentness — a lot of times when something good happens, it’s over time and very rarely does it happen instantly and be meaningful. For these underclassmen, we keep stressing that this is the process. There will be ups, there will be downs, but you just have to weather the storm and keep working and keep grinding for that ultimate reward.”

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

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