Standing a few feet off third base, Don Senestraro spreads his arms out wide and bends his knees. Two steps into the foul side of the chalk that divides foul territory from fair, he looks like he's trying to surf across the dirt.
He feigns a move to the plate then walks back, careful to demonstrate the angle of his return and the position of his head — always up, facing the ball. A group of Ashland High softball players, clustered near the coach's box, watch closely.
"I lead off in foul territory, why? Who knows?" he asks.
He picks one girl out of the audience, then another, then another. They hesitate, give partial answers, sort of know and sort of don't. Finally, he explains the rule: A line drive that hits an offensive player in foul territory is merely a foul ball, but a line drive that hits an offensive player in fair territory is an out. Therefore, make sure you're outside the chalk when leaving third base.
To anybody who's played softball or baseball for a few years, this sort of instruction would probably seem elementary, almost condescending. But to many of the Grizzlies, as Senestraro has learned, it's an answer to a question they either were too afraid to ask or never considered.
"Right now, we have a lot of girls who don't know much about the game," Senestraro said, "and our commitment is to get better every day. Where I would like to see it go is back to the way it was six, seven years ago, when people came to Ashland and knew that they were going to get a great game."
One practice, one lesson, one raised hand at a time, the Grizzlies appear to be headed in the right direction. With close to half its 2014 season complete Ashland is 2-8 and has shown signs of slow but steady progress, evidence of which can be found in both overall consistency, especially on defense, and the ratio of blowout losses to competitive losses.
In their first three games, the Grizzlies were pulverized by a combined score of 61-3, including a 27-0 loss to South Medford. Since that time, three of their five losses have been by five runs or less and they've even managed to pull out a pair of victories, 11-1 over Sisters on March 25 and 9-8 over Phoenix on April 5.
Perhaps the greatest example of Ashland's upswing can be found in its series against the North Valley Knights. In the Grizzlies' season opener March 19, North Valley had its way with Ashland, winning 21-1 at North Mountain Park. Two weeks later, at Grants Pass, the Grizzlies pushed the Knights to the limit before dropping a hard-fought game, 2-1.
"The improvement there was immense," said junior shortstop/pitcher Grace Lenthe.
Lenthe, who leads the Grizzlies in batting average (.429), slugging percentage (.607) and RBIs (13), has played softball since tee ball. On most varsity softball teams that's the norm, but in Ashland this season experience is a hot commodity. That's because according to Senestraro, seven players on the 15-player roster are playing organized softball for the first time. Which means that at times, Lenthe and the other girls who have been around the game for more than two months often find themselves explaining, coaching.
"A girl doesn't know what to do, you gotta help her out," Lenthe said with a shrug, "because if it happens again it's going to be even more frustrating."
This can be especially infuriating when a teammate fails to grasp even the most basic rules and/or concepts — three strikes is an out, four balls equals a walk, three outs per inning. Don't laugh. It's happening, just not as much as it used to. And soon, Senestraro hopes, the great plays will outnumber the head-scratchers.
Alicia Murphy, a left fielder and the only senior on the team, believes the Grizzlies will get there because they're putting in the work.
"I think it comes from (Senestraro's) little motto, which is just get better every day," Murphy said. "So he targets what he sees that we're not doing in the game and we go out and practice specifically that for however long that he thinks we need to. And that really heightens our awareness of how to be in the game and how to do things differently."
Murphy says Senestraro's coaching style — lovingly papa bear-ish; he has the patience of a man who's helped raise four daughters and two sons — has made practices both fun and productive.
"He has a very encouraging personality," Murphy said of Senestraro, whose youngest daughter, Julia, is also on the team. "He encourages us to never get down on ourselves and pick ourselves up, which makes the game a lot less stressful, personally. And he knows completely what he's doing and I trust everything he says."
"I think being connected with your coach is really important," Lenthe added. "Being able to understand and having your coach be personal with you is a good thing, I think."
Of course, this is not the first time that Senestraro has attempted to put his stamp on a sports program at Ashland High. It was nine years ago that AHS athletic director Karl Kemper hired Senestraro, at the time a popular Ashland Babe Ruth coach with no high school coaching experience, to take over the Grizz baseball team.
What followed exceeded the expectations of even the most die-hard Grizzly fan. In his third season, Senestraro guided the Grizzlies all the way to the Class 5A state semifinals, at the time the deepest playoff run in team history. They were just getting started. That 2007 team was the first of four straight Ashland baseball squads to advance to the final four, a run that included two state championship appearances and the state championship victory in 2008.
Senestraro stepped down following the 2011 season to spend more time with his family, but when Kemper came calling two years later asking Senestraro if he could be an assistant coach for the softball team, he couldn't say no. Former head coach Cheri Kuykendall left following the 2013 season, and once again Senestraro was at the helm, doing what he loves.
Were there any second thoughts? Not really.
"I talked to the girls after the season last year and kind of told them if they wanted me back that I would commit to them," he said. "And I also told (Kemper), as I always did in baseball, 'If you can find somebody that can do a better job than me. "¦"
"My main thing is I want to give the kids, whoever that is, the best experience they can have."
Reach sports editor Joe Zavala at 541-776-4469, or e-mail email@example.com