ASHLAND — When Ashland High head baseball coach Nick Hall glanced down at his lineup card last season, he didn’t have to look hard to find a senior with plenty of experience.
It won’t take Hall long to count the amount of seniors he has on this season’s team.
There may be a relative dearth of experience on the Grizzlies’ roster at the start of the 2018 season, one that begins today at 4:30 p.m. on the road at Grants Pass. But what Ashland may lack in experience in the opening weeks of the season, Hall is hoping that with youth comes plenty of room for growth.
Compared to a year ago when the Grizzlies went 13-12 overall and had over half of their starting lineup filled with seniors, there’s only one on this season’s team — outfielder Rhythm Winicour-Freeman.
“It’s pretty unusual around here because we’ve had some pretty strong senior classes in the past,” Hall said. “What we’re really looking for is for some younger guys to really step up and really fill some rolls that are there. We basically have one one returning varsity starter and one senior, so we’ve got a lot of young guys, but they’re young guys who have put in a ton of work in the offseason. I think they’re ready for that challenge.”
If anything, Winicour-Freeman is interested to see what the youngsters can do.
“As a collective team, we’re ready to get on the field and test each other out,” Winicour-Freeman said. “Last year they were coming in and helping us out on varsity and they were doing their jobs, so I’m really excited to see what they can do as starters this year and really improve for the next few years.”
The most noticeable graduate from last season’s team is starting pitcher Peyton Fuller, who is now coming out of the bullpen in his freshman campaign at the University of Oregon. Fuller, a two-time all-state selection who had a 1.32 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 47 ⅔ innings last season, was the undisputed ace of a hard-throwing starting rotation.
This year, it will be a different kind of look to the Grizzlies’ pitching staff.
Not just with the names, but also their approach on the mound.
“We’re trying to throw strikes. We need to minimize walks, we can’t put guys on base, can’t have freebies,” junior pitcher/first baseman Evan McLellan said. “A big thing this year is that we’re trying to throw strikes because nobody is going to blow the ball past anyone. We had three guys throwing 85-plus last year, but that’s just not how it’s going to be this year. We’re going to throw strikes and let our defense do work.”
According to Hall, he’s expecting it “to be more of a committee this year” with his pitching staff. McLellan, one of the Grizzlies’ more experienced pitchers, will be looked upon to be one of the Grizzlies’ top pitchers in 2018.
“Our plan is that any guy we throw out there, we have confidence that they’ll be able to throw strikes, keep hitters off-balance and be able to compete,” Hall said. “Another key to that is us playing great defense. We need to be really solid on the defensive side of things to give ourselves a shot.”
Offensively, the Grizzlies aren’t envisioning themselves to be heavy hitters who bring plenty of power along with them at the plate.
Instead, Ashland’s goal is to be opportunistic more than anything else.
Essentially, it will be a keep-the-line-moving kind of mindset rather than swinging for the fences any chance that they get.
“I feel like we can rally, and that seems to be our big point,” Winicour-Freeman said. “When we get going, we can get going. We’ve got guys who can make contact, we’ve got guys who can hit the ball between the fielders and that’s huge in late-game spots. We might not have the power to hit it over the fence or crack doubles every inning, but we definitely have the rally power.”
“We’re going to have to take advantage of the situations that other teams give us,” McLennan added. “We’re going to have to get guys on somehow — be it a walk, hit by pitch, getting a hit and move them over — and we’re going to have to play small ball. Just execute when we need to executed.”
Hall expects the Midwestern League to be just as strong as it was a year ago. Amongst the tough MWL field is reigning OSAA Class 5A champion Churchill — which went 28-3 last season — and fellow state finalist Crater.
Following its quick three-game non-conference schedule, Ashland opens league play with a doubleheader in Eugene against Marist on Saturday, March 24.
“In the past, there’s been no games that you can just check off on your schedule — and I think that’s a good thing because everyone is aware of that. We’re out here working every day because anybody be beaten by anybody,” Hall said. “I think it’s kind of up to us not to care who we’re playing. If we play the best baseball we can, we’re going to be competitive, so it’s about not getting caught up in who we’re playing.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.