The playoffs are all about performing under pressure, and in Ashland High baseball coach John Wallace the Grizzlies have somebody who knows exactly what that takes and what it looks like.
It was the summer of 2007 when Wallace, then a sophomore at Oregon State, proved his mettle in front of a national television audience. Oregon State was clinging to a 7-3, seventh-inning lead over North Carolina in Game 2 of the best-of-three College World Series championship round, and the No. 3-ranked Tar Heels were trying desperately to pry loose the momentum unranked Oregon State had seized in the early going. With a runner on first base, UNC's Seth Williams drove a full-count fastball down left-field line, setting off a chain of events that has come to define Oregon State's magical postseason run.
Wallace, the Beavers' left-fielder, raced over to scoop up the ball directly in front of the foul pole, 335 feet from home plate. By the time Wallace released the ball UNC's Tim Fedroff, who was at first base, was two steps away from third and being waved home. The Beavers appeared to have little chance at preventing a run from scoring, which meant their lead would likely be cut to three runs with a runner on second and still only one out. Then, it happened.
Wallace fielded the ball cleanly off the side-wall, reared back and threw a bullet to shortstop Darwin Barney, who caught the ball about 70 feet past third base, just inside the foul line. Barney, now a Golden Glove second baseman for the Chicago Cubs, whirled around and threw a strike to catcher Mitch Canham, who applied the tag to Fedroff, whose wide eyes and gaping mouth, captured by ESPN cameras as he walked back to the dugout, seemed to say, "How did they just do that?"
"I just did my job," Wallace said of the play after practice Friday at North Mountain Park. "I just went and got it in the corner, hit the cut guy right on the chest and let them do the rest."
The Beavers ended winning the game 9-3 to clinch the series, becoming the fifth team to win consecutive NCAA titles. Wallace was on the 2006 team as well, starting as a freshman. He was 3-for-4 with a triple, two runs and an RBI in the '07 clincher over North Carolina, and soon thereafter had his name emblazoned on a T-shirt that he still occasionally sees when visiting Corvallis: "Wallace to Barney to Canham", it reads.
"That's pretty cool," he said.
Wallace said Oregon State's first College World Series title was a great experience, but to him the second was even better. If it's possible for a defending national champion to come out of nowhere, that's exactly what Oregon State did in 2007. The Beavers were hit and miss during the Pac-10 season and barely qualified for the 64-team tournament as a No. 3 seed in one of 16 four-team regionals. They then went 11-1 in the postseason to become the first team to win the CWS after finishing below .500 (10-14) in league play.
"We saw how great it was to be a national champion, to reach that peak," Wallace said, "and all the excitement and highs that come with it, and then to do it a second time is so much harder.
"Just to see how we were mediocre, we were middle-of-the-pack the whole season, and the way that we just turned it on in the playoffs and that special run we went on for three or four weeks was I thought more special than the first time."
After graduating from Oregon State in 2009 Wallace moved to Portland, where he worked in retail selling hearing aids. Two years later he quit and decided he wanted to get back in the game. Not long after that he was in Ashland visiting girlfriend Ashley Hafner, a teacher at Ashland High, and was introduced to AHS athletic director Karl Kemper.
Kemper told Wallace that he was looking for a junior varsity coach and Wallace decided to apply. He got the job in 2012 and coached the Grizz JV's through that season, after which varsity coach Paul Westhelle resigned. Wallace applied for that job, too, and was hired.
Wallace's first season as varsity coach started off bumpy with four consecutive losses, but the Ashland faithful, who have become accustomed to postseason excellence, can hardly complain about the position the Grizzlies find themselves in now. Ashland is No. 1 in the OSAA power rankings and hosts Madison today in the first round of the 16-team Class 5A state tournament (the first pitch is slated for 4 p.m. at North Mountain Park).
Wallace has brought a little bit of Oregon State to Ashland, taking much of what he learned from Beavers' head coach Pat Casey and implementing it in practice. He also cites his high school coach, Reno High's Pete Savage, as a major influence.
Wallace still talks regularly with both, especially Savage.
Taking over a program as stable and successful as Ashland's — former head coach Don Senestraro led the Grizzlies to four straight semifinal appearances and one state championship between '07 and '10 — had its challenges, but Wallace says the Grizzlies had to go through that.
"I think there was definitely an adjustment period," he said, "because they've just done things the same way for quite some time. They've been successful and you want to keep that tradition and keep the kids in a comfort zone, but I also wanted to bring a whole bunch of new stuff to them and it took some time for them to get used to how I run my practices."
Now, Wallace says, the Grizzlies, who have won seven of their last nine games, have turned a corner, perhaps just in time to make another postseason run.
"They've finally started to get the flow of things and now everybody's pretty comfortable with how we're running things.
"I think we've improved a lot. "¦We've turned it on, and the last three-quarters of the season we've played pretty good. Hopefully, we can carry that into these playoffs."