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  • BASEBALL

    Ashland Pilots show promise with late-season surge

  • To head coach John Wallace, there was a lot to like about the Ashland Pilots' 2014 season.
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  • To head coach John Wallace, there was a lot to like about the Ashland Pilots' 2014 season.
    No, the Pilots didn't qualify for the American Legion A state tournament, nor did they finish above .500 — a midseason slide cost them any chance of that.
    But down the stretch the Pilots showed why Wallace is excited about the future of Ashland High baseball, as Ashland won its last five games, including a sweep of Area 4 juggernaut Central Point, to finish with a respectable 14-17 record.
    "I think this summer was a step in the right direction," Wallace said. "We won more games than last season and this was basically the same group as last summer, so this was a big step. I really like where the program lines up for next season, and there will be a lot of competition for varsity spots next (spring)."
    While batting was Ashland's strength through most of the summer, it was the Pilots' pitching prowess that led to the late turnaround.
    Against Central Point on Thursday, the Pilots got a solid complete-game performance out of Game 1 starter — and recent South Medford transfer — Caleb Bell, and benefited from a gutsy 5 2/3-inning performance out of Game 2 starter Nick Sanderson. The result: Ashland stormed back in the seventh inning to nab the first game 5-3, then jumped out to an 8-0 lead en route to an 8-6 win in the nightcap.
    The performances of Bell and Sanderson — they allowed a combined three earned runs in 12 1/3 innings against the defending Northwest Regional champions — provided a perfect example of what the Pilots had plenty of over the last two weeks, and not enough of previously.
    "The difference was our starting pitching," said Wallace, who guided the Ashland High varsity team to the OSAA Class 5A state quarterfinals in May. "We had some quality starts so we had time to rest arms, and when you have fresh starting pitching you can win some ballgames. We didn't have the starting pitching (earlier in the season). They'd only go like two or three innings and that made it hard on the bullpen and the rest of the staff."
    Though he was unable to calculate Ashland's statistics before leaving for Hawaii, Wallace said the whole staff picked up its game over the last three weeks of the season.
    He added that he was particularly impressed with Kyle Milgram, and incoming senior, Bell, an incoming junior, and Sanderson, who's entering his sophomore campaign.
    Milgram, a right-hander, doesn't have a blazing fastball to lean on when the going gets tough, but by attacking the corners and mixing up his pitches he usually stayed out of trouble and turned out to be the Pilots' most reliable arm.
    "(Milgram) did a great job," Wallace said. "He's a great ground-ball pitcher. He's not overpowering, but he's got good stuff. He throws four different pitches for strikes and he works them down low in the zone. He really was our No. 1 guy that we could rely on for quality innings and weak outs."
    Bell, says Wallace, was Ashland's next most consistent pitcher, followed by Sanderson and a host of others who were called into action after Jesse Carroll was lost for the season in late June with a wrist injury. Matt Flynn, Chris Buckley, Tyler Clary, Shea Scott, Noah Falkner and even late addition Evan McLennan, who just completed his seventh-grade year, took the mound for the Pilots. Some showed flashes of greatness, such as Flynn's one-hit gem against Henley on June 18.
    But the loss of Carroll proved too much to overcome for the Pilots, who lost nine of 11 games in a brutal three-week stretch after Carroll went down, turning what had been a promising 5-5 campaign into a lost cause. Ashland rebounded to win seven of its last 10 games, but fell well short of the upcoming state tournament.
    Carroll was leading the Pilots in almost every offensive category when he hurt his glove-side wrist diving for a fly ball only days after going off for two doubles, a triple and a home run in a doubleheader against the Wolfpack on June 17.
    "Everybody recognized what Jesse was doing for our team," Wallace said. "That put more pressure on other guys to step up, and we had a lot of games scheduled at that time, too, so I think it just took some time finding somebody who was going to step up."
    Jesse's older brother Jerry ended up being that guy, moving to the three hole in Ashland's order and living up to the lofty perch with a strong summer at the plate, including a 3-for-4 effort against Central Point that included a double and a clutch RBI single to help spark the Pilots' dramatic comeback. The older Carroll also was a stalwart in center field, Wallace said.
    "(Jerry Carroll) really stepped up as the team leader going into his senior season and I was glad to see that happen," Wallace said.
    As for Jesse Carroll, who starred for the AHS junior varsity team as a freshman and is expected to be fully recovered in time for his sophomore season, Wallace expects big things.
    "He's a kid with a lot of physical tools, he's very competitive and he can hit the ball to all fields," Wallace said. "He really showed that he was a step above everybody else."
    Wallace also praised shortstop and leadoff hitter Aaron Scott and Sanderson for their production at the plate. Both starred for Ashland's varsity team in the spring and both continued to show growth over the summer, Wallace said.
    "It was a hard summer because nobody really played the same position every day," Wallace said. "So the lack of consistency became a challenge, but the kids adapted and realized that they needed to play where we needed them that day. So, I think the strength is we have guys that can play a lot of positions and the key going into next year is finding where everybody's going to fit and to find some consistency defensively."
    Ashland will begin to figure that out in fall ball, which begins in September.
    "I think when you look at our roster, it's going to be pretty good," Wallace said. "And a lot of those guys have played JV for two years. So now it's time for them to raise the bar and start competing at the next level."
    Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.
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