Even with several key components returning from last year's Class 5A state championship team, Ashland's baseball team is doing its best to remain as low key as possible these days.

Even with several key components returning from last year's Class 5A state championship team, Ashland's baseball team is doing its best to remain as low key as possible these days.

That strategy may pay off in the long run, but none of the Grizzlies' Southern Sky Conference opponents are falling for the ploy.

Ashland was an overwhelming choice to defend its league title by its peers in the annual coaches' poll, due in large part to the Grizzlies' top-tier pitchers and proven hitters.

"They have three legitimate guys on the hill and they're going to light the scoreboard up," says Eagle Point coach Rob Cowden of Ashland. "I don't see a weakness with that team to be honest with you. They're solid offensively, solid on the bump, solid defensively. They've got speed and they've got power. It'd be a good group to have."

Fifth-year Grizzlies coach Don Senestraro is certainly not interested in trading teams with anyone anytime soon. Beyond the talent, the other thing Ashland plans to utilize in SSC play is a humble approach.

"They're handling it really well," Senestraro says of his team being targeted as the reigning state champs. "They're not too over-optimistic this year. They have set their goals high but, yet, they know what it takes to get there also. It takes a lot of talent and it takes a lot of luck, too."

The league schedule begins today with Crater playing host to Eagle Point at 4:30 p.m. at Anhorn Field. The early opening, including an April 3 date between Ashland and the Comets, was made necessary by Crater's inclusion in the Fresno Easter Classic on April 6-8.

The Comets were tabbed to finish second in the SSC by the coaches, followed by Klamath Union, Eagle Point and Mazama. Unlike last year, only two league teams will advance to the state playoffs this season.

"That makes it very difficult," says Mazama coach Jeff Sturgeon. "When you take only two, good teams get left out of the playoffs. That's what's tough about this league of five."

Leading the charge for Ashland again this year will be the Sebrell brothers, Charlie and Lewis, and a foursome of heady returning starters in Garrett Tygerson, Ian Kendall, Hayden Miller and Nick Hall. All were all-league selections a year ago, with Charlie Sebrell earned second-team all-state recognition as a pitcher after a regular season that saw him go 9-1 with a 1.39 ERA.

To sum up Charlie Sebrell, Senestraro says one need look no further than his competitive nature and pinpoint control on the mound. The right-hander boasted a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 7 2-3 innings last season.

"He keeps you in the game all the time," says the coach.

Already solid players, Tygerson and Kendall each stepped up their play over the summer and legitimately give the Grizzlies three aces to choose from for a given start. Senestraro says Tygerson may have the best changeup on the team and hits around 85 miles per hour with his fast ball, while the coach suggests Kendall may have the best stuff of all the pitchers and hit 92 on the radar gun this summer.

Behind the plate, Lewis Sebrell makes it all happen for Ashland as a fourth-year starter. "I tell him all the time that when Lewis goes, we go," says Senestraro. "He's a great team leader behind the plate who's in command of the game all the time. He has a great knowledge of the game and great instincts."

As effective as the pitching may be for Ashland, the Grizzlies are able to match anyone with their offensive output.

"When we're on, we should be able to score a few runs, too," says Senestraro. "That's the scary part of it, we can hit a little bit."

Tabbed to give Ashland its best challenge once again is a Crater team that offers a blend of old and new players and will be led by pitchers Craig Kathol, Bruce Sanford, Haden Bighouse and Justen Morgan. All but Morgan saw action for the Comets last year, but it was the injury-plagued Morgan whom Crater staffers believed would end up being the team's ace a year ago.

Seniors Kathol and Sanford were each all-league selections last season.

"Our pitching is obviously our strength and that's going to keep us in games," says Crater coach Jay Campbell. "I think the key for us this year is going to be getting those young kids we have to not make young mistakes and having our pitching stay sharp and healthy. If we do those things, I think we're going to be able to manufacture some runs and compete."

The Comets also boast all-league returning outfielders Kos Ray and Christian Massey, and have been given a boost by sophomores Bryce Crawford and Derek Cartwright and freshman Corey Wynant.

"I don't see anything changing," says KU coach Pete Whisler. "I think (Ashland and Crater) are definitely the two teams we have to go through to get anywhere again this year."

Eagle Point boasts returning all-SSC pick Garrett Davis, who hit .400 as a junior last year, and a pair of southpaw standouts in seniors Tim Zomerdyk and Brian Smith.

The Pelicans will be led by a solid nucleus of juniors Jake Whisler, Seth Brown, Justin Chavarria and D.J. White and seniors Mason Aspera and Nate Young.

Mazama returns senior leaders Nate McDaniel and Aaron Bocchi and standout sophomores Daniel Mathis and Andrew McDaniel.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com