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New-look MWL about to get started for Ashland

Realignment and teams changing leagues isn’t a new thing in Oregon high school football.

But when it comes to the look of the Midwestern League in 2018, there’s most definitely a new twist or two — most notably with the two divisions as well as the league’s champion being determined in the final week of the regular season before the state playoffs start the first week of November.

Consider Ashland second-year head coach Beau Lehnerz as one of those all in favor of the new-look MWL.

“I like it because I think it makes it more competitive,” Lehnerz said. “When you’re looking at things just based on the power rankings, it can be kind of confusing, so I think having the North and South and having some crossover where we know what the other division is good. But the pressure’s on now — you’ve got your league games, you’ve got to finish in the top 3, hopefully, and then if you’re in the No. 3 seed, you’re playing for a spot (in the postseason).

“It puts something on every game, too — even that ninth game.”

Instead of the seven MWL games it played in 2017, Ashland’s total of league contests is just five this season.

All of the league’s12 teams played a non-league game in Week 1 and then two cross-divisional games against teams from the other MWL division before the five-game divisional schedule begins this Friday night, pushing the total to eight games on the season.

So, as you might be wondering, what about that ninth game Lehnerz mentioned?

Week 9 is the added wrinkle to the schedule that wasn’t around last season.

Wherever a team finishes in their own division, they will play the team from the other that finishes in the same spot.

So, say Ashland finishes third in the South Division, the Grizzlies will then play a Week 9 game against the North’s third-place team.

That means the two division champs will face one another for the top seed coming out of Special District 2 in the 16-team 5A state playoff field.

“Whether it’s the 1s playing each other or the 6s playing each other, there’s something at stake,” Lehnerz said. “Nobody wants to think about being there as the No. 6, but at least it’s the 1s are playing for a conference championship, 2s are playing for the next best seed, 3s are playing for a final (postseason) spot.”

Four of Ashland’s seven MWL opponents are the same as last season, starting with Friday night’s league opener against Churchill in Eugene.

While Eagle Point, Crater and North Eugene remain and South Eugene has come down from 6A to round out the South Division, Thurston and Springfield — which beat Ashland 49-35 in Week 2 — are now in the North Division, while Marist has moved down to 4A in all sports starting in the fall.

The North Division is as follows: North Bend, Springfield, Redmond, Thurston, Ridgeview, Willamette.

Ashland, which is coming off a wild 51-40 win over Ridgeview to improve to 2-0 at Walter A. Phillips Field this season, has arguably the hottest teams in the MWL South right out the gate. And both of those games are on the road, with a visit to Eagle Point the week after facing a Churchill team that is the favorite of many to claim the league title.

Eagle Point (3-0) outscored Redmond and Springfield 80-15 in its two cross-divisional games.

“I don’t know how they selected North and South with the divisions since we’ve got North Eugene and South Eugene in our conference, but I would say based on records last year and definitely how teams are doing how right now, I would say the South is stronger,” Lehnerz said. “It could potentially be a South team sitting out with a higher power ranking than a North team making the playoffs — which happens. It’s frustrating, but we want to make sure we’re not in a situation where it comes down to that.”

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

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