As the Ashland High softball team approaches the midway point of its season, it is still a unit in search of an identity.

As the Ashland High softball team approaches the midway point of its season, it is still a unit in search of an identity.

The Grizzlies (8-4) open the Southern Sky Conference portion of their schedule on Saturday with a trip to Central Point to face two-time defending Class 5A state champion Crater in a doubleheader, starting at noon. The nonconference portion of Ashland's schedule has included both bright spots — a repeat championship at the Yreka Tournament — and dark ones — a pair of shutouts in its last three outings, including a 13-0 loss to reigning Class 6A state champ Grants Pass on Wednesday.

"I think we had a really hard preseason, so I think we're really well prepared and we're excited to get the conference started," junior pitcher/infielder Hayley Ross said. "We have a lot of new girls and this preseason helped us bond together and be the team we want to be."

Ashland rolled to a 21-5 record last season, including a 9-3 mark in SSC play to capture the school's first-ever league title. But the joy was short-lived as errors and an uncharacteristically shaky pitching performance by ace Bella Pribyl contributed to a home loss to Century in the second round of the Class 5A state playoffs. That pain was compounded by watching rival Crater — a team Ashland had beaten three times in four meetings — go on to win the state title.

"I think we have a fire under us," senior co-captain Amanda Good said. "We kind of had it taken away from us last year and we want it really badly."

Compared to last season, when the Grizzlies jumped out of the gate by winning their first 10, this season's beginning has been more modest. The team opened with a 3-2 loss to Henley before winning five straight. The team has split its last six to post an 8-4 mark.

"Our schedule was a lot harder than it was last year," fourth-year coach Misty Potochnick said. "We did that on purpose. We wanted to play harder teams so we would be better when went into conference."

The Grizzlies allowed more than three runs just three times in 26 games last season. They've yielded more than three six times in 12 games this spring and have already allowed more runs (48) than they did all of last season (44). Defensive breakdowns have been one problem; Ashland has committed 18 errors in 12 games.

"We're a different team and we're still coming together and we've played a lot of really good teams this year," Pribyl said.

In the circle most days is Pribyl, a senior coming off a dominating season in which she earned SSC Pitcher of the Year honors after going 20-5 with a 0.72 earned run average and 232 strikeouts.

"Every time Bella's in there, we have a chance to win," Potochnick said.

A true power pitcher, Pribyl is still seeking to regain her 2008 form, however. She's 7-2 with a 1.87 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 56 innings this spring while splitting time with Ross. Part of that could be attributed to moving the pitching rubber back three feet to the current NCAA standard of 43 feet from home plate.

The bright spot for Ashland has been its offense. The Grizzlies are batting .299 as a team and have six players hitting .300 or better. Ashland has scored five runs or more in eight of its first 12 games, but has been blanked twice.

"That's going to be a real positive thing for Bella," Potochnick said. "In the past, Bella's had to kind of carry the team. Offensively, we're going to put up some numbers. If we can hold teams to two or three runs, I think we'll have a chance to win any game."

The Grizzlies return six starters from last the school's first conference championship team, including All-SSC first-teamers Good, Sarah Silbowitz, Pribyl and Carley Santee. Good (.425 batting average) and Silbowitz (.302) form the league's best left side of the infield. Ross (.349) takes over for Samantha Gilbert at second base with sophomore Rose Marston at first.

The outfield has a new look with Kaylin McAnary in left, freshman Nicole Lehman (.405) splitting time with Santee (.387) in center and either Piper Cantrell (.361) or Natalie Knight in right. Santee has moved from centerfield behind the plate as the top catcher, replacing All-SSC perfomer Kylie Cantrell.

"Our offense is a bit stronger than last year," Ross said. "On defense, we just need to practice playing together some more, because we've had to put girls in positions they're not normally at."

Good, a line-drive hitter with power (six career home runs), is the offensive leader in average, hits (17, tied with Lehman), RBIs (13) and extra-base hits (six).

"Whenever anyone steps up to bat, I know they are going to do something," Good said. "Everyone has shown it this year."

The SSC race figures to be balanced, with any of the four teams (Klamath Union does not field a team) capable of grabbing the title. The league gets three spots in the Class 5A playoffs.

While the Grizzlies are hoping to step things up a notch when SSC play begins Saturday, the Comets are just hoping for a touch of yesteryear. The defending state champions are 2-8 and have been 10-runned twice already this spring.

"I don't think anyone should be favored," Pribyl said. "Any team can beat any team on any given day."