ASHLAND – With 17 returning starters back off an 8-3 playoff team, veteran Coach Ryan Thompson and the Ashland-Greenwood Bluejays have high expectations heading into the 2019 season.
The Bluejays were defeated by the Ord Chanticleers in the Class C-1 quarterfinals last November and an experienced and talented senior class quickly refocused the team, setting sights on the start of the 2019 season.
“It’s been a great summer. I couldn’t have asked for more out the kids. Their work ethic in the weight room and their willingness to get better this offseason has been tremendous,” said Thompson.
Thompson, 76-44 in his 11 seasons on the Bluejay sideline, credits much of the offseason success to a strong core of seniors.
“Those guys have played a lot of football for us the past two years and they lead by example for our young guys,” Thompson added.
The Bluejays welcome back 170-pound senior quarterback Hunter Washburn after a solid junior campaign.
Washburn passed for 1,416 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushed for nearly 300 more while leading the Jays to eight wins.
“Hunter is pretty dynamic. He made huge strides last season and he looks great this summer. We are excited to see what he can do,” Thompson said.
Also returning is two-time 1,000 yard rusher Bryce Kitrell.
The 195-pound Bluejay senior rushed for 1,242 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.
“Bryce is a game-breaker. He has a tremendous combination of size and speed that makes him difficult to stop,” Thompson added.
Thompson hopes to take some pressure off Kitrell and the running game with four extremely talented receivers.
Seniors Kyle vonRentzell (6-1, 180), Trey Comstock (6-2, 170), Seth Novak (6-2, 165) and sophomore Cale Jacobsen (6-2, 170) will provide Washburn with a quartet of big, athletic and sure-handed targets.
“Those guys are probably under the radar, but we feel great about our receiving corps,” Thompson added.
The offensive line has a few more question marks.
Senior Jacob Ludwig (215) returns with the most experience up front while teammates Jacob Carroll (210), Riley Kasuske (200), Blake Kobs (225) and Aiden Zulkoski (235) also return after playing a lot of snaps a season ago.
“We need to develop some depth up front, but I like how that group is coming together,” Thompson added.
The Bluejay defense allowed less than 12 points a game a season ago and Thompson feels like the 2019 version could be even better.
Eight starters return including two who could be in the all-state conversation at season’s end.
Ludwig returns after leading the team with 110 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
“Jacob is a special talent. He is big and physical and he can really move. I think he has a chance to have a special, special senior season,” Thompson added.
Kitrell added 70 tackles from his linebacker spot and his ability to go sideline-to-sideline to make tackles, should have that number closer to 100 at season’s end.
Comstock, Novak, Washburn, vonRentzell, Zulkoski and 165-pound senior Gavin Bergsten also return after starting a season ago.
The Bluejay schedule features familiar foes, all nine teams were on the regular season schedule in 2018.
AGHS opens the season with a home game against Fort Calhoun on Aug. 30.
The game with the Pioneers is one of five home games for the Jays.
Auburn comes to Ashland for a game on Sept. 27 and the regular season culminates with a road game against Lincoln Lutheran on Oct. 25.
The Bulldogs and Warriors are the only two teams on the Jays schedule to qualify for the playoffs last season. The nine opponents combined for a 33-50 record.
“I like how our schedule sets up. Bottom line is we just need to take care of what we can control. If we do that I think we can win some football games,” he said.