It wasn't long ago that Ashland High was considered to be the premier Class 5A baseball program in the state. Fielding a nearly unstoppable combination of dominant pitching, clean defense and clutch hitting, the Grizzlies advanced to the state semifinals four years in a row, made it to the finals twice and won the 2008 state championship.
But nothing lasts forever, and entering the 2014 state playoffs Ashland is looking for its first quarterfinal appearance since 2012 and its first semifinal run since 2010.
"Right now, we're just trying to win one game," Ashland coach John Wallace said. "Last year we lost in the first round, so our goal is to get the first one. We gotta take it one game at a time because we haven't won a playoff game in two years."
What: First round of 16-team 5A state
Who/When/Where: No. 15 seed Dallas (16-11) at No. 4 Ashland (19-8), 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at North Mountain Park.
AHS Leaders: Eric Carlson (.478 BA, 10 2B, 28 RBI), Nick Sanderson (.389 BA, 3 HR, 29 RBI), Bryce Rogan (.330 BA, 30 R, 8 2B), Steen Fredrickson (2.38 ERA, 53 K, 6 CG), Tommy Hulick (2.03 ERA, 5-0, 42 K).
Fourth-seeded Ashland (19-8) hosts the 13th-seeded Dallas Dragons (16-11) on Wednesday in the first round of the 16-team Class 5A state tournament. The game is scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m. at North Mountain Park, where Ashland is 9-3 this season. The winner will face either fifth-seeded Sherwood or 12th-seeded Hermiston in the quarterfinals Friday.
Ashland reeled off 14 wins in a row to climb atop the 5A power rankings, but played .500 ball thereafter (5-5) to drop to fourth. The good news is, that's good enough to yield home-field advantage for the Grizzlies through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Not that Ashland is looking past Dallas.
"We're definitely going to have to step it up," said Ashland senior third-baseman Eric Carlson, who's batting .478 with 10 doubles, 28 RBIs and 26 runs scored. "We're going to have to show up Wednesday, especially against a good team like Dallas. The ultimate goal is to win a state championship, but for us it's one game at a time and you've got to win one to get to the next round."
Led by a lefty pitcher who's coming off a dominant performance, the Dragons, who finished tied for third in the Mid-Willamette Conference, present an uncharacteristically formidable first-round round block. Behind Logan Hatley's 16-strikeout masterpiece, they beat Redmond 2-1 in 10 innings in a play-in thriller Friday. Hatley, a junior, struck out the first 11 batters he faced and held Redmond scoreless in the seven innings he pitched. Redmond broke a 0-0 tie with a sacrifice fly in the top of the 10th, but Dallas came back to win on a two-run walk-off single in the bottom of the inning.
"I don't really know anything about (Hatley); I haven't got a report," Wallace said. "We're just going to worry about ourselves first, about being prepared for the game and being ready to go."
Ashland does have a little bit of experience to fall back on. Hatley pitched three innings during the second game of a doubleheader in Ashland early last season. He held the Grizzlies scoreless on one hit, striking out two. He took the mound in the fourth with Dallas up 9-3. The Dragons eventually won 10-3 to complete a sweep.
"From what I remember, I think he's more of a thumber and he just kind of gets it on the outside part of the plate," Carlson said.
As far as Ashland's pitching is concerned, Wallace said on Monday that he has yet to decide who will get the start against Dallas. He has several options. Junior right-hander Steen Fredrickson (5-5) has been the staff workhorse with a team-high 56 innings pitched, and he's carrying a solid 2.38 ERA with 53 strikeouts and 20 walks. But Wallace may also go with hard-throwing senior Carter Glick (4-2, 3.92 ERA), who's come on strong, or undefeated senior righty Tommy Hulick (5-0, 2.03 ERA), who has 42 strikeouts and 15 walks.
Wallace hasn't determined a playoff batting order yet either, although it's no secret who will be near the top. Carlson, freshman lefty Nick Sanderson, Bryce Rogan and Aaron Scott have all produced. Sanderson leads the team in both RBIs (29) and home runs (three), Scott is batting .342 and Rogan is batting .330 and leads the team in runs scored (30).
The Grizz defense has turned out to be the team's most glaring weakness. They've committed 65 errors in 27 games.
"We've got good arms — we definitely have good pitching — and we have guys that can swing the bat," Wallace said. "Really, when we struggle, it's when we're not making the routine play or getting the big hit with runners on base. We have guys who can play defense, but when the ball is hit to them we've got to make plays."
"I think our biggest challenge is keeping our focus and intensity up all game, since we haven't done that too well all year," he said. "But our practice intensity is starting to go up, and I think that's just going to be huge for us."
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org.