Ashland’s precocious band of preteen softballers ditched Little League for a USA Softball schedule this season precisely for the uptick in competition, and now the Ashland Rumble is hoping to reap the benefits from that experiment at the USA Softball 12-B Oregon State Tournament.

The 12U Rumble, consisting of nine players from Ashland and one from Phoenix, face the Lake Oswego Renegades today at 1 p.m. in the first round of the 25-team tournament, which concludes with the championship game Sunday. The three-day event will be held at the Howard Terpenning Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation Complex in Beaverton.

The Rumble is made up of most of the same players who led Ashland to back-to-back district titles and a third-place finish at the 11-12 Little League all-star Oregon state tournament last summer. Ashland would have been a contender at state this year, too, but decided instead to join the more competitive (locally, at least) USA Softball, formerly known as ASA.

“Last year I think we went 19-1 during the Little League season and we weren’t pushed at all, then got to districts and were pushed a little bit, and then we got to the state level and that was like night and day from what we were used to,” Ashland head coach Bobby Heiken said. “We needed to be pushed to get better (this season), and I think we probably gave up a very successful Little League run at the state level this year. It could have been special, but I just think that overall it is better to play better quality opponents.”

The move, Heiken says, has proven to be a success on all fronts, as the Rumble enters the state tournament 26-17-1 overall, including 20-5-1 against Rogue Valley opponents, and has benefited mightily from playing top-tier programs during the regular season.

Ashland is led by pitcher/shortstop Gabby Heiken, catcher Kirsten Morgan, pitcher/shortstop Rae Goff, third baseman Jessica Traynor and pitcher MeKenna Wheeler.

Gabby Heiken leads the team in batting average (.491), on base percentage (.581) and RBIs (54) and ranks second in runs scored with 47. She also has picked up 11 wins in the circle and has struck out 144 batters in 107 innings while surrendering 62 earned runs.

Morgan ranks second on the team in batting (.422) and leads the team with 32 stolen bases. Goff, the leadoff hitter and only player from outside Ashland, is batting .380 with a .525 on base percentage, 30 stolen bases and a team-high 11 doubles.

Traynor is batting .373, ranks second on the team with 42 RBIs and hit Ashland’s lone over-the-fence home run this season. Wheeler also has 11 wins in the circle with 84 strikeouts, and owns Ashland’s second-best on base percentage (.531).

Also on Ashland’s 10-player roster is Glory Pistole, Shelby Brown, Tatum Pantle, Mariah McLennan and Mary Montgomery.

The state tournament bracket strongly favors teams that start out well, says Bobby Heiken. Teams that lose one of their first two games, he points out, must win five on Saturday in order to advance to the final six Sunday. Heiken is confident the Rumble has the talent to make a deep run, but says it’ll likely come down to whether or not his team heats up at the right time.

“I think we definitely have a chance to win some games,” he said. “I think our depth is always going to be in question, but we’ve got three pitchers that can give us innings and that can throw strikes. And we’ve got a group of kids that have state experience, and we’re hoping that will pay off.”

Heiken tapped the Eugene Lightning Blue as his tourney favorites. The Rumble faced the Lightning Blue twice this season, losing the most recent encounter 9-5. The difference between the upper echelon and the rest, he said, mostly comes down to depth. But as in all youth softball tournaments, upsets are likely to occur. The question, he said, is which teams will play their best under pressure.

“There’s a large group of teams in the field — maybe 15 — that are at about the same talent level and could get hot and go far,” Heiken said. “We’re kind of in there, and it just depends on our pitching and fielding and hitting. We’ve got the pitching that can get us there and if we get hot, anything can happen.”

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.