Acts don’t get much harder to follow than the man Beau Lehnerz was hired to replace.
Charlie Hall led the Ashland High Grizzlies to the OSAA Class 5A state quarterfinals six times, a state runner-up finish in 2015 and won four conference Coach of the Year awards in his 11 years as head coach. He also happened to be a beloved figurehead, admired and respected by fellow coaches, fans and players alike.
But if there was any doubt that Lehnerz was the right man to take the reins when Hall left in March to coach Southern Oregon University, Ashland’s assistant coaches did what they could to squelch the debate when they met with athletic director Karl Kemper shortly thereafter to sing Lehnerz’s praises. Days later Lehnerz was offered the job, and now the man who declared his new gig a “dream come true” after the move became official in April is working on putting his own stamp on a program which has become a perennial state title contender.
And though Lehnerz inherits a team as inexperienced as any wearing Ashland red and white the last 10 years, he doesn’t see any reason why the Grizzlies, the defending Midwestern League champions, should backslide in 2017.
“We set our goals high,” said Lehnerz, who’s been an assistant at Ashland the past 10 years, the last two as its defensive coordinator. “But, we also talked about how tough it’s going to be as far as depth and experience and things like that. Myself, I see Churchill being up there as the team to beat, Marist will be tough, Thurston will be better. …I know we’re going to make mistakes with our youth, first-year quarterback and things like that, but I see us making the playoffs and I see us being in the top mix of our division.”
Ashland’s operating systems will remain relatively unchanged with Lehnerz at the keyboard, as the Grizzlies will continue to run a spread offense and 3-4 defense, though they’ll likely slow down a little on offense to afford their many two-way players a little more time to rest.
That first-year quarterback he referred to is senior Cade Swenson, a 6-foot, 170-pound senior who threw eight passes last year as Tucker Atteberry’s primary backup. Swenson will have the benefit of playing behind the most experienced unit on the team — the offensive line that includes four returning starters — and the challenge of leading an offense whose most prolific returner (Swenson himself) accounted for 31 yards of offense last season.
To overcome that inexperience, at least initially, Lehnerz says the Grizzlies will probably look to the line to set the tone. Senior tackles Drake Morey (left side) and Detlef Laughery will protect the edges, senior center Troy Boyd will call the shots and junior left guard Myles Montgomery is expected to take the next big step after his standout sophomore campaign.
“We’re really going to rely on those guys up front,” Lehnerz said. “We really want to establish the run, and pass-wise those guys should be able to give (Swenson) a lot of time.”
"I think right now our biggest strength is definitely our offensive line," Morey said. "We have a really great, veteran group, so right now we're just trying to build our offense around that."
Athleticism abounds at the skill positions, but for Ashland green is the new black. Sophomore running backs DeMario Watson and Austin Harris will take most of the handoffs, and seniors Anthony Swanson and Aaron Chandler are expected to be Swenson’s top target after combing for three receptions a year ago, all by Chandler.
The Grizzlies’ offense struggled to get out of first gear during the Pacific Rim Bowl July 29 — Japan dominated the game 34-7 — but Lehnerz took solace in the fact that Swenson had plenty of time to throw the ball, even if that didn’t translate into points (the Grizzlies’ lone touchdown was Chandler’s fourth-quarter interception return).
Since that game, in scrimmages, Swenson has focused on staying in the pocket and giving his receivers time to run their routes. He’s already shown much improvement in that area, says Lehnerz, but the real test will come when the Grizzlies open their season Friday at Klamath Union.
“(Swenson’s) only quarterbacking experience before was JV, and in JV you’re running for your life,” Lehnerz said.
On staff to help accelerate Swenson’s development is former Ashland head coach Jim Nagel, whose expertise has already made a huge difference, says Lehnerz.
“Instead of dropping back and chucking it, (Nagel’s) really having these guys read where they’re throwing, how they’re giving it or running it. We ask a lot (of the quarterbacks).”
Ashland’s defense will be even less experienced than its offense, boasting only three returning starters in Morey, a powerful (6-5, 260) edge rusher, and linebackers Laughery and Montgomery. Also expected to step in and make key contributions are senior end Kadyn Kimbrough, senior nose guard Sam Miller, sophomore linebacker Finn Hayes and junior cornerback Ben Feinberg.
Rinefort and Chandler will see plenty of time at safety, and Watson will play corner. With the speedy Rinefort and Chandler in the defensive backfield, Ashland opponents will likely see a strong dose of cover 3. Rinefort, a sophomore who’s emerged as a leader, will also punt and kick for the Grizzlies, and play tight end.
The Grizzlies excelled at forcing turnovers last season, recovering 11 fumbles and intercepting 20 passes, but often struggled to get off the field against strong rushing attacks, surrendering over 200 yards a game. That weakness proved fatal in the state quarterfinals against Lebanon, as the eventual state champions rushed for 350 yards en route to an overtime victory.
“I hope that we’re able to stop the run,” Lehnerz said. “The linebackers can run, they can read. Our D-line is going to require multiple guys to block them, so we’ll make teams pass. I feel like …we’ve had a lot of interceptions the last couple years, but we struggled stopping the run. We made people drive, but we need to stop the run.”
The Grizzlies have a history of starting strong on Pacific Rim Bowl years, and Laughery hopes that trend continues.
"Guys have already gotten their feet wet, we're already a game ahead of everybody else," he said. "I think we're all ready for the season."
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.