Thom Larkin | Daily TidingsAshland High assistant coach Dave Tygerson, left, delivers ground balls to first basemen Garrett Tygerson, middle, and Sam Gaviglio during Tuesday afternoon's pratcice at North Mountain Park.

The bats and balls were off to the side 15 minutes before Tuesday's practice at North Mountain Park. With the weather bearing down, Nick Hall, football in hand, threw a 15-yard bullet to Owen Baldrica, who hauled it in cleanly for the imaginary touchdown.

So, it's official: not even 41-mph wind gusts icing 38-degree air can keep the Ashland High baseball team from scoring about six runs, or points, at a time.

With the Southern Sky Conference regular season half over, the Grizzlies are in fine-tune mode this week as they try to stay sharp during a 10-day gap in the schedule. The break will give the team a chance to work out any kinks that have developed. It's also an opportunity for Ashland (15-2) to take a step back and appreciate a most impressive run, one that even has head coach Don Senestraro shaking his head.

"No, I didn't (expect) it," Senestraro said. "I knew we were going to be good, but I didn't think we were going to be this good."

How good has Ashland been? The Grizzlies are scoring an average of 9.4 runs per game while giving up just 2. They have a team batting average of .342, a team slugging percentage of .545 and 13 home runs &

four each by Owen Baldrica and Sam Gaviglio. As if the offense wasn't enough of a headache for opponents, Ashland's team ERA is an astounding 1.44.

"I knew we had it all along, it just took us a while to get it going," said Gaviglio, who's allowed just two earned runs in 38 1-3 innings pitched for a 0.37 ERA.

While the Grizzlies expected to have a dominant pitching staff, few could have anticipated the spike in offensive firepower. Last season, nobody on Ashland's roster managed to hit a ball over the fence until the last game of the season &

a Class 5A state semifinal loss to Churchill. This year, fans walking along the outfield fence at North Mountain are in constant danger. Six Grizzlies have gone yard, including leadoff hitter Max Gordon, and there are still nine regular season games to go (not to mention warmer weather that helps balls carry).

Where did that sudden burst of power come from? Senestraro and company say it has always been there, but was finally tapped thanks to a heavy dose of BP.

"A lot of kids this off season put in some hard work in the cages and I think that's finally starting to pay off," said Baldrica, who leads the team in batting average (.448), RBIs (25) and is second on the team with an .845 slugging percentage. "We've worked a lot on (hitting the) curve ball, because we got toasted by that last year, and slow pitching. Last year our team would have been shut down in some of these games where you just have these thumbers who are just not bringing heat. This year our guys are being a little more patient. We're seeing more pitches. We're constantly working on that stuff in practice and it's paying off."

In a recent example of that payoff, Ashland scored 40 runs and hit five homers in a doubleheader sweep of Eagle Point last week. The rout provided a perfect example of the Grizzlies' power and depth. Another example? Ashland's No. 9 hitter, Hall, is batting .412 with a .559 slugging percentage &

numbers that would earn him a spot near the top of the order on most teams.

But not on this team.

Against the Eagles, who gave the Grizzlies fits last year, Garrett Tygerson launched a ball over the scoreboard in left-center field, sophomore Ian Kendall hit a line drive homer to straight-away center and Gaviglio and fellow ace Charlie Sebrell held the Eagles to one run in a combined five innings.

While impressive, the twin bill blowout begged questions about competition level and playoff readiness &

a dilemma Senestraro says he's fine with.

Thinking ahead, Ashland tried to combat that before the season started by scheduling a nonconference game May 13 against the Phoenix Pirates, currently the No. 2-ranked Class 4A team (Ashland is ranked No. 6 at the 5A level). Phoenix is one of just two teams to beat Ashland this year, handing the Grizzlies an 8-7 loss back April 1. Since then, the Grizzlies have rattled off eight straight SSC wins by a combined score of 89-11, including a sweep of defending state champion Crater.

The Comets and Grizzlies meet again Tuesday in Ashland. A Grizzly sweep would all but wrap up the conference. In a season of blowouts, that's all the motivation Ashland needs as it tries to continue a surge that may soon become part of AHS lore.

"We knew coming in that we were going to be tough," Senestraro said. "Hitting, pitching, defense &

this team can pretty much do it all."

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Billy Russo warms up his arm during Tuesday afternoon's pratcice at North Mountain Park.

Thom Larkin | Daily Tidings



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