The seniors on this year’s Ashland-Greenwood football team took a giant step forward last season, going 8-3 and reaching the quarterfinals of the Class C-1 playoffs after suffering through a 3-6 campaign in 2017 and taking losses of 66, 52 and 61 points in three of those games.
But they also discovered that there was still work to be done to reach the levels that the 2013 and 2014 Bluejay teams rose to when they finished as state runner-up both seasons.
Ashland-Greenwood’s 2018 campaign ended in a 42-7 loss to eventual state finalist Ord, a game that’s etched in the memories of this year’s 17 seniors. The Bluejays returned 17 starters from a year ago — nine on offense and eight on defense.
“Ord definitely opened our eyes to the areas we needed to get better at,” said Ashland-Greenwood coach Ryan Thompson, whose fifth-ranked Bluejays take a 2-0 record into a Friday home game against Fairbury.
“The biggest thing was the weight room, and these guys really transformed themselves during the offseason,” added the 12th-year head coach. “But the speed of the game was also a factor, and I think we look faster than we did a year ago.”
This year’s run for a state championship actually began back in 2013 and ’14 when several of this season’s seniors were in middle school and served as managers. Senior all-state running back Bryce Kitrell had older brothers Bo (a former Husker fullback) and Brett (a junior offensive lineman at Ohio) on those teams to look up to.
“We looked up to those guys as heroes and we dreamed someday we could accomplish what they did,” said Bryce Kitrell, a 6-foot, 195-pounder who rushed for 1,242 yards and 16 touchdowns a year ago and registered 73 tackles as a linebacker.
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“The players on those teams were very hard workers and extremely driven. They were great role models for us,” added Bryce Kitrell, who has scholarship offers from Ohio and South Dakota State.
Ashland-Greenwood has been able to diversify the offense and not depend on Bryce Kitrell as much in the first two games. Kitrell leads the team in rushing with 165 yards and a pair of TDs, but the senior duo of running back Gavin Bergsten and quarterback Hunter Washburn has 133 and 132 yards on the ground, respectively, and a combined three TDs.
The 5-11, 170-pound Washburn is proving to be a dual threat, throwing for 250 yards and three TDs and spreading his 23 completions to seven different receivers. Sophomore wide receiver Cale Jacobsen has five catches for 111 yards and a pair of scores.
“When defenses suck in to stop Bryce, that just opens up everyone else in the offense,” said Washburn, who has a baseball scholarship offer from Wayne State. “I feel a lot more comfortable back there (at quarterback) than I did as a freshman or sophomore. Our line does a great job up front and we have backs and receivers who can make plays.”
Five linemen return as starters, a group led by Jacob Ludwig (6-1, 210) who had 110 tackles, seven sacks and 19 stops behind the line of scrimmage in 2018 as a middle linebacker on defense. Ludwig, who is getting recruiting interest from Northwest Missouri State, leads the team in tackles this season with 14.
He was forced to go against players two and three years older when he was a freshman and sophomore, “and at times it wasn’t fun,” said Ludwig, who is joined up front offensively by senior Jacob Carroll (6-0, 210), sophomore Riley Kususke (5-11, 200), senior Blake Kobs (6-3, 220), senior Aidan Zulkoski (6-0, 235) and senior tight end Kyle vonRentzell (6-1, 180).
“It was a learning experience, and I think we all benefited from it in the long run.”