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Grizzlies face big test in MWL opener vs. Churchill

The young Grizzlies won’t have to wait long to see what the class of the Midwestern League’s South Division looks like.

The first week of league play not only means a long trip north to Eugene, but trying to take down the league’s favorite.

Coming off its 2-1 start to the 2018 season, the Ashland High football team will face one of 2017’s Class 5A state finalists in Churchill to begin MWL South play tonight in Eugene. Flush with talent up and down its roster, the Lancers were the consensus pick to win the new-look MWL this season — and that’s before they took the field with their new toy at quarterback.

“They just reload,” Ashland head coach Beau Lehnerz said of Churchill (2-1 overall), which is ranked third in this week’s 5A coaches poll. “I think a lot of credit has to go to their head coach (AJ Robinson). They’ve always had some really good athletes in their program. You just look at body sizes of those guys compared to ours and they would always stand out, but for some reason or another they couldn’t get over the top.

“I think AJ’s done a great job of creating a culture there, a winning culture, and utilizing his guys the best he can. He keeps getting great athletes, too.”

Lehnerz joked that Churchill’s new QB, Demontre Thomas II, is “already third on the Heisman voting” when talking about the Lancers’ senior transfer from Allen, Texas.

Thomas II not only beat out a starter in Jack Blackburn — who threw for over 2,700 yards and totaled 40 touchdown passes in 2017 — that led Churchill to the state championship game, but is quickly establishing himself as one of the best quarterbacks in all of Class 5A.

Thomas II has accounted for 15 total touchdowns this season — eight passing and seven on the ground — and has completed nearly 71 percent of his passes through the first three games of the season.

“He’s the prototypical dual-threat guy,” Lehnerz said of Thomas II, who has thrown for 716 yards and rushed for another 225. “He can throw it far, and I think he’s more of an athletic type of quarterback where if he doesn’t see something he will tuck it and run. They’ve got some designed runs — and he’s a load, too, at 6-foot, 220 pounds. He looks comfortable in the pocket, he looks comfortable running the offense and he just has that swagger and demeanor that he’s going to put the team on his back and do what he wants.”

Thomas II’s arrival to a team that went 12-1 last season has the Lancers’ offense averaging nearly 50 points a game this year.

“They have good players and we’re just going to have to go in there and do our best and play a solid game,” Lehnerz said.

Ashland (2-1) knows the tough task ahead of itself.

Lehnerz’s group of Grizzlies was able to match its win total from 2017 with last Friday’s 51-40 win over Ridgeview, the first time they’ve eclipsed the 50-point mark since Oct. 2016.

But as they begin league play, the Grizzlies are still searching for not just a complete game, but also consistency from one quarter to the next.

“We show that potential of a explosive offense, a timely defense as far as forcing turnovers are concerned, but we’ve yet to put four quarters of good football together,” Lehnerz said. “We’re in position to make plays sometimes and we don’t make them. But then some of our guys rise up (last week against Ridgeview), we get a couple of sacks and a couple of picks, and we pull it out. We’re not consistent, and we need to be consistent.”

How many quarters of good football did the Grizzlies have last week?

“Two-and-a-half,” Lehnerz said. “We just have to play four solid quarters of football and let the chips fall where they may. I think if we can have more of those flashes and live up to more of that potential, I’m hoping that we put enough scare into Churchill with our offense that they have to prepare for that.”

It’s the same type of deal for the Grizzlies on defense, who have looked really good at times this season but struggled to stop the run in others.

Ridgeview ran for 310 yards and averaged 8.4 yards per carry last Friday, finishing with 450 yards of total offense.

Knowing how Thomas II and the Lancers’ offense have put up points and yards galore already this season, the Grizzlies’ MWL South opener has all the makings of their toughest test to date as the midway point of the season quickly approaches.

“It’s going to be a test. We know who Churchill is, but we don’t want to put so much pressure on the kids that if we don’t win this game then the season is over,” Lehnerz said. “We want four quarters of football and if we win it , that’s awesome. But if we don’t win, we’ve got four more games to finish in the top three of our conference.”

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

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