Ashland baseball coach John Wallace expected big things from seniors Eric Carlson, Bryce Rogan and Carter Glick as well as junior Steen Fredrickson, and each has delivered during what has turned out to be a stellar 2014 campaign.
But Wallace also had high hopes for an up-and-coming freshman, and Nick Sanderson has turned out to be exactly what the Grizzlies needed — a middle-of-the-order, aggressive, ice-in-his-veins power hitter who has routinely made opposing pitchers pay for their mistakes.
A 6-foot, 205-pound lefty first-baseman, Sanderson ranks third on the team in batting average (.326), second in slugging percentage (.630), first in home runs (3) and second in RBIs (16) heading into Ashland's next big test, a nonleague clash today with 6A power North Medford.
Who: 6-foot, 205-pound freshman first baseman.
What: Ranks in top three on team in batting average (.326), slugging percentage (.630), home runs (3) and RBIs (16).
Today: North Medford at Ashland, 4:30 p.m.
Not bad for a guy whose main goal heading into tryouts was to make the varsity team. He did, has steadily improved and now is a major reason why Ashland (15-4) has won 15 of its last 16 games and is No. 2 in the OSAA Class 5A power rankings.
"Just a lot of hard work in the offseason," Sanderson said when asked about his success. "I mean, I thought I had a shot to at least make the team and I just worked as hard as I could and it has definitely paid off for me."
It's paid off for the Grizzlies, too. After starting the season riding the bench during Ashland's March 26 season-opener in Arizona, Sanderson made his first start the following day and has been a fixture ever since.
He's had several clutch hits for the Grizzlies, starting with that magical first home run April 8 in Klamath Falls. The three-run blast capped a dramatic seventh-inning rally which lifted Ashland past defending 4A state champion Henley, 11-7.
"I knew we had the lead at that point, so it wasn't super pressure," he said of the shot to right. "I was just calm and trying to get the bat on the ball and hit it hard somewhere."
The win now just looks like another W in Ashland's long string — the Grizzlies won 14 straight before Henley avenged its only loss of the season last Saturday — but at the time it was significant for several reasons. For one, it lifted the Grizzlies back to .500 at 3-3 just as it appeared, down 6-3 with two outs in the seventh, that they were doomed to a 2-4 start. And secondly, it proved that Ashland could hang with one of the best teams in the state.
Two days later Ashland proved it again by beating Crater, currently No. 1 in the 6A power rankings, 2-0. And two weeks after that Sanderson delivered another clutch hit as part of another never-say-die comeback, this time at home against Roseburg. Down by three heading into the bottom of the seventh, Ashland scored three runs on four hits to send the game into extra innings, where it finally prevailed on a bases-loaded walk.
Sanderson did his part, smashing an opposite-field double in the seventh to score Max Montgomery from second and tie the game at 8-8.
Sanderson's current tear may surprise those who have seen freshmen mostly struggle at the varsity level, but not Wallace.
"(Sanderson's) having a great year and I anticipated that he'd be able to do this," said the second-year head coach. "Even when I first saw him this winter I knew he could do special things right away. He's someone that's going to hit at a high level for four years and he's going to have a lot of chances to grow. He's just going to keep getting better and better."
Sanderson was expected to be a difference-maker when he made the Pilots, Ashland's American Legion A team, last summer, but struggled to find consistency in his first tangle with near-varsity level pitching. But rather than let that get him down, Sanderson worked hard throughout the offseason, both on his mechanics and his strength. For the latter, he called on the expertise of assistant baseball coach and head football coach Charlie Hall, who knows his way around the weight room and has helped a long line of Grizzlies go from scrawny to scary.
"All my maxes went up by a good amount of weight," Sanderson said. "I was a lot stronger than I was, even in the fall. And coach Wallace helped me a lot and I think I improved my swing a whole bunch."
Sanderson also figures to help Ashland on the mound eventually, but a strained ligament in his throwing elbow put his pitching debut on hold, and now that Ashland's staff has proven to be more than adequate — the Grizzlies are carrying a 3.36 team ERA — fans may have to wait until next season to see Sanderson's first varsity start.
Sanderson's phenomenal rookie season at the plate has helped Ashland position itself for what could be a long postseason run. Led by Carlson's out-of-this-world senior campaign — the third-baseman is batting .508 with 23 RBIs — Ashland is batting .309 as a team and has its sights set on an automatic berth to the round of 16.
With seven games left in the regular season, Ashland trails only Bend in the 5A power rankings. If it can hold that spot, Ashland would be guaranteed of a home game in the first round of the playoffs and quite possibly the quarterfinals as well. That's a pretty good scenario, especially for a team that began the season with three ugly losses in Arizona by a combined score of 27-12.
"I think it just came from the team itself," Wallace said of the turnaround. "It's really hard to put your finger on it sometimes — the team just built chemistry and does a nice job of picking each other up. It's really not one thing we do exceptionally well, we just play good team baseball. Everybody knows their role and does his part.
"You never really know who's going to step up that day. But somebody finds a way to."
Even if that somebody is a freshman.
"My main goal," Sanderson says, "is to contribute to the team and help the team get wins."
So far, so good.
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or email@example.com