Carter Ash Bozeman Football

Bozeman senior Carter Ash poses for a photo at Van Winkle Stadium on Wednesday. He’s scored a punt return touchdown in each of the Hawks’ first two games.

During Bozeman’s first two-a-day practice of the summer, the Hawks’ coaches told their punt return team to take the field.

As players trotted out, no one went back to return the ball. Ryan Simpson, who since graduated and joined Montana, used to fill the role. But this year, Bozeman needed someone to step up.

So coaches called on wide receiver and cornerback Carter Ash. He’s been playing football since he could walk and had never returned punts before. But any way he can help the team, he’s willing to.

“I was just excited,” Ash said of becoming a punt returner. “It’s a little scary at first, but once you make the catch, it’s just fun I think.”

Through two games, Ash has fully embraced the role and maximized his opportunities. He’s returned a punt for a touchdown in each of the Hawks’ contests thus far. He’ll put that streak on the line again when Bozeman (1-1) hosts Billings Senior at 7 p.m. Friday at Van Winkle Stadium.

Ash has caught three passes for 43 yards to go along with five tackles. But nothing he’s done has had as large of an impact as the two scores he’s pulled off on special teams.

“(Ash is) extremely reliable, and I think that he’s a guy we can count on in a pinch,” Hawks head coach Levi Wesche said. “... Knows exactly what his assignment is on everything. Obviously real fond of the kid, and I can’t imagine having a team without him on it.”

Ash’s hands and speed have helped make him into “one of the best receivers in Class AA easily,” Wesche added. But when returning punts, catching the ball takes priority. Ash doesn’t take the job lightly. He knows everyone is watching him. If he drops it, he’d feel solely responsible for the turnover.

But so far, that hasn’t been an issue. Instead, Ash has provided Bozeman with two of the team’s biggest plays this season. In Week 1 at Kalispell Flathead, Ash’s return turned a 14-point lead into a 21-point cushion that fully separated the Hawks. In Week 2 against Missoula Big Sky, Ash’s touchdown turned an eight-point game into a two-point deficit and kickstarted Bozeman’s comeback attempt.

“My coaches have taught me well. They gave me some strategies,” Ash said. “The first is to just make one move and go up field, not worrying about running side to side but up field. North-south versus east-west running. And obviously I’ve gotten some great blocks from my teammates that have helped give me a good seam to run through.”

To work on those ideas, Ash spends 10 minutes every day before practice catching punts and five minutes each Tuesday and Wednesday with the whole team out there blocking for him.

Though it’s not much time, it’s proven enough for Ash to make an immediate difference in his new role.

“To catch anything that’s punted to him is huge,” Wesche said. “It saves us field position. Next is he has great vision and he is crazy, sneaky fast.”

After last year’s state semifinal loss, Ash considered how the season ended. He thought the Hawks’ campaign should have lasted another week. So he ran track in the spring to improve his speed and took summer weight-lifting sessions even more serious.

The effort has paid off.

While the 6-foot, 160-pound Ash still wants to make more game-breaking plays at corner and receiver, he’s started the season strong in other ways.

His favorite times on the field are when he makes those big plays. Ash loves the high-fives and chest-bumps he receives from teammates. He loves the cheers he hears from the crowd.

That, he said, is the best feeling.

“I just love everything I do,” Ash said. “I don’t want to take any moment for granted.”

Paul Schwedelson can be reached at pschwedelson@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.