Opening league play against arguably three of the toughest teams the Midwestern League South Division has to offer was never going to be an easy task for the Ashland High football team.
That’s why Grizzlies head coach Beau Lehnerz figured that his team’s best chances at league wins would come as the month of October went on.
After claiming their first MWL South win last Friday night, the goal now is clear: Go back-to-back.
The second of two straight games against schools from Eugene has arrived, as Ashland makes the long trip north to face South Eugene at 7 p.m. tonight in the final MWL South game for both teams.
“Ultimately, none of the other stuff matters if we don’t take care of Friday night,” Lehnerz said. “That’s the thing and our theme of the week is intentness. We can control what we can control, and regardless of all these other things, it’s ultimately in our hands. If the other things don’t pan out, it’s not our concern and we can only do what we can do.
“That’s been our focus — harnessing whatever went well on Friday night (against North Eugene) with the enthusiasm, the discipline, the tackling, all those things and having that carry over to this week.”
The new two-division format in the Midwestern League (5A Special District 2) means the Grizzlies (3-4 overall, 1-3 MWL South) are ensured two more games in the 2018 season.
There’s tonight, and then comes the crossover game against the team from the MWL North that mirrors where Ashland finished in the standings.
Depending on tonight’s games, Ashland could finish anywhere from third to fifth in the South Division.
That could mean a rematch against Springfield or Willamette — teams Ashland has already beaten this season — or a trip to North Bend or Redmond.
The possibilities are abundant.
The concentration, though, must be on this week, Lehnerz says.
“I think the kids think about the postseason, but they want to finish with a .500 record,” Lehnerz said. “If we were to win out, we’d be 5-4 after we were a 2-7 team last year. To a man, the kids feel like we’re a better team than last year — and they want to show that. I think the motivation is there, I think they have the right attitude as far as we can handle what we can handle.
“If we make it to the postseason, awesome, but otherwise we’re going to play the best football we can these last couple of games, go out on a high note and reward the seniors with a winning season and then kind of set the tone for next year and the offseason.”
To make it two straight wins, Ashland will have to beat a team that nearly pulled off one of the bigger upsets of the season to date last week against Churchill, which is ranked third in the state in this week’s 5A coaches’ poll.
Like Ashland, South Eugene (4-3, 2-2) is in the four-team mix behind first-place Churchill and Crater — who are both 4-0 in league play and face one another tonight in Eugene — that could finish in a variety of different spots in the standings based on tonight’s results.
Playing in 5A this season after moving down a division, South Eugene gave Churchill its closest game since it suffered its lone loss of the season on Sept. 7 to Wilsonville, 5A’s top-ranked team.
South Eugene’s plan is simple, too.
The Axe will run.
And they will run a lot.
For a Grizzlies team that has struggled against the run this season, facing a team that operates out of the option may not be the best of news.
But when it comes to how to try and prevent the run defense’s ills from earlier this season popping up again, Lehnerz offered a simple solution — at least on paper.
“It comes down to when you’re playing a triple option or a zone read type of team is discipline,” Lehnerz said. “Everybody has to know their assignment, carry out their assignment and trust that their teammates are going do their assignments. Once guys start worrying about ‘I don’t know if he’s going to be there...’ then the whole thing starts blowing up.
“We know (South Eugene’s) probably a little bit bitter with how close they came with Churchill — and that can go a couple of different ways. We’re hoping we play at our best and get some lucky bounces as well.”
There’s the extra matter of trying to make it back-to-back wins — something the Grizzlies haven’t have the chance to do in over a month.
“Coaches and people say ‘Wins aren’t the most important thing, it’s getting better each week,’ but a win feels pretty good,” Lehnerz said. “I think the kids really needed that (last week). They needed that for validation that their hard work was going to pay off. One of the coolest things to hear, and Myles (Montgomery) was one of the kids saying it, was that’s the most fun they’ve had playing football in a long time. A win has a lot to do with it, but we talked about playing loose, playing with some swagger and playing with confidence, but also playing a game, not life or death kind of stuff.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.