Last year's roller coaster ride through the regular season and subsequent postseason flameout does not appear to have shaken the confidence of the Ashland High baseball team.
The good news is, the Grizzlies have a few good reasons to be optimistic. Their top two batters from a year ago — junior infielder/pitcher Steen Fredrickson and senior center fielder/pitcher Bryce Rogan — are back, along with a pair of top-end starting pitchers, Carter Glick and Fredrickson.
If the defense can hold its own — and second-year head coach John Wallace believes it will — Ashland should field a team capable of doing some damage when the Class 5A state playoffs begin in late May.
"We're out to prove that," said Fredrickson, who led the team in batting average (.395) and RBIs (21) last season. "We're out to prove that we're going to be that dominant power. I think we can go deep."
Ashland opens its 2014 campaign Tuesday in Arizona, where it will play three games before returning home for a doubleheader April 5 against Phoenix.
Last season the Grizzlies were an enigma, nearly flawless in wins over 6A powers North Medford and Crater and their own worst enemy in ugly losses to Dallas and South Medford. They opened the season with four straight losses, won eight of their next nine then put together another six-game winning streak before stumbling in the first round of the state tournament, losing 4-1 to Madison.
Ashland's fatal flaw proved to be its defense, which committed 52 errors in 26 games, including three in the playoff loss.
Though most of the names are the same, Wallace believes that the Grizz defense — particularly the infield — will be a more polished product this time around. The talented Aaron Scott, a sophomore, returns for his second season as the starting shortstop and is expected to team up with sophomore second baseman Jose Perez to give the Grizzlies a potentially explosive double-play combination.
Fredrickson and Eric Carlson, another senior, will be interchangeable at first and third, and Glick will share time with sophomore Jett Hamik behind the plate.
A stalwart catcher last season, Glick's time there will be limited this season as he takes his place at the top of Ashland's pitching rotation. The 5-foot-11 right-hander saw only limited action last season — 22 innings — but made the most of it. His 0.95 ERA was tops among Grizzlies with 13 innings or more.
"I feel like I can handle it," Glick said.
Glick's fastball tops out at 86 mph and he throws a hard curve that used to be his best pitch, but that was before he spent the offseason working with pitching coach Chuck Thacker to develop a change-up.
"I threw it in (scrimmages) and that's been my get-em-out pitch," he said.
Fredrickson, who had a 5.84 ERA last season, will also see plenty of action on the mound, as will Carroll. Tommy Hulick and Rogan will also pitch for a Grizz team that's short on both depth and lefties — the only left-handed pitcher on the roster, freshman Nick Sanderson, has been pulled from the rotation with elbow soreness.
The Grizzlies' outfield will be led by Rogan, the returning starter in center. Junior Max Montgomery is tentatively slated to start in left and Hulick, a senior, in right.
Wallace said the infield will be a strength, not a weakness, this year.
"It really helps us that they can play all the positions," he said, noting that Perez can play second, Glick will occasionally play in the outfield and Vince Cammarota may also catch. "You get handcuffed when you've got a guy that can only play third base and can't move over to second or first. So I think defensively, we're going to be better than we were last year."
Offensively, Fredrickson, Rogan, a lefty who batted .344 with a team-high 11 doubles last season, Carlson and Glick will all be high in the Grizzlies' order, but where exactly has yet to be determined. Rogan excelled in a leadoff role last year, but Wallace said he'll probably slide Rogan down in the order this year. Carlson batted .253 last year and is expected to take another step after playing well for the Medford Mustangs last summer.
One big question the Grizzlies will have to answer is who, if anybody, will be able to provide a spark in the bottom half of the lineup. Last season, there was a sharp dropoff after the No. 5 spot. On possibility is Sanderson, who's young but talented.
"You know, I guess we'll find out," Wallace said. "We're going to throw (Sanderson) into the fire in Arizona. He has a great swing, he's a very physical kid. He can hit the ball a mile in batting practice. The thing I'm looking for is, how is he going to react in a game situation facing better pitching than his grade level. I know from a swing standpoint and a strength standpoint he can hit at this level and he can be a middle-of-the-order guy. I'm just looking to see how he does and reacts to live pitching and some quality pitching."
Carlson doesn't believe scoring runs will be a problem for the Grizzlies, who averaged six runs a game last season.
"I think hitting's going to be a huge strength on this team," he said. "We've been scrimmaging quite a bit the past couple weeks and we've been hitting the crap out of the ball."
After returning from Arizona, the Grizzlies, who compete in the two-team Southern Oregon Hybrid 5A with Eagle Point, will play a mostly Skyline Conference schedule. That means doubleheaders on Saturdays and single games on Tuesdays, mostly against the likes of Mazama, Phoenix, Hidden Valley, North Valley and Henley. They face Eagle Point three times, including a doubleheader that wraps up their regular season May 17 at Eagle Point.
Ashland would love to finish in the top eight in the final OSAA power rankings — that would earn the Grizzlies a spot in the 16-team state tournament and home-field advantage in the first round. To reach their goals, Rogan said, the Grizzlies must stick to the program's template for success, a blueprint which produced four straight semifinal appearances between 2007-10 and a state championship in 2008.
"We're getting better every day on defense and I think we're gong to get there," he said. "This program has been built on pitching and defense, and that's what's won us games. Last year, we didn't get it done in the field and a lot of these guys remember that and know what it feels like to not have the defense that backs it up.
"That kind of keeps us focused every day to get better. We know what it's going to take to move on farther than we did last year, and that's definitely what we're looking for."