Don Senestraro has heard all the murmurs about his Ashland baseball team and, quite frankly, he's sick and tired of it all.
Causing the most frustration is the simple fact that he has nothing to do with the question marks being thrown his way anyway, so why bother to lend them any credence?
In the wacky world that has created hybrid leagues in the state and left the Grizzlies to fend for themselves with only Eagle Point at their Class 5A level, Ashland is an outstanding team unable to fully receive their just due.
The Grizzlies have put together a 22-1 season heading into Saturday's game at Henley, but they can't help but feel like there's an asterisk attached to such a stellar campaign that has them No. 1 in the 5A power rankings.
"Every day we go out and just try to play the best we can and try to win every game that we play," Senestraro said Monday. "The rest I don't really care about."
Due to scheduling difficulties because 5A programs are few and far between in Southern Oregon, Ashland has been welcomed by the 4A Skyline Conference for the occasional doubleheader. The stigma there is 5A programs are supposed to beat the 4As, right?
The Grizzlies can't even catch a break when they play up a level and face the teams in the 6A Southern Oregon Hybrid because, well, none of those teams are interested in throwing their top pitchers against Ashland in order to save them for ensuing conference games.
So what's Ashland to do? Apologize for showing pride in coming out victorious time and again?
"That's a tough thing, too, to go 23-1," said Senestraro, whose team also owns a pair of double-digit wins over Mountain View, which is No. 2 in the 5A power rankings. "No matter who you're playing, that's a pretty good accomplishment when you consider all the things that go into that. You expect to have a bad game or some hitters not come through or just have a bad day overall at some point, so it's tough no matter who you're playing."
Ashland's lone loss this season came at Roseburg, when the Grizzlies uncharacteristically walked 10 batters and hit three others to pave the way for a 15-5, five-inning by the Indians. Buoyed by the play of pitchers Josh Graham and Jared Priestley, Roseburg has gone on to control matters in the 6A SOH, sporting a 15-4 overall record and 11-2 league mark.
That contest, played on the first day of conference games in the SOH, at least offered the Grizzlies a chance at seeing top-tier pitching. Ever since, Ashland hasn't had the same opportunity against its other 6A foes. Playing those nonconference games Thursday or Friday before the 6A schools' regular Saturday conference tilts has provided a Catch 22 for all involved.
North Medford pitted Will Kunkle against Ashland for his only pitching action of the season in a 6-0 loss. Kunkle also serves as a state-caliber discus thrower for the Black Tornado track and field team. South Medford gave little-used senior Kanin Campbell some time on the bump with a pair of sophomores in a 7-3 loss. Crater put juniors Matt Preston and Chris Painter, vying for the No. 4 spot, up against the Grizzlies and fell 7-3.
As the conference slate has worn on, only Grants Pass has thrown one of its top pitchers against Ashland in junior Tyler Bennett, and the Grizzlies still held on for a 5-2 triumph.
Senestraro certainly knows why his team hasn't been seeing the No. 1 or 2 starters from its 6A peers, but it's also something he can't control.
"You've got to pick your battles, I know that," he said. "Why would I want to battle here when I need to win on Saturday?"
It's the same reason why he threw sophomore Jaime Flynn, Ashland's top JV pitcher, against the Comets leading up to a twin bill with Eagle Point that would determine the champion in the 5A SOH.
"It would be nice if we were seeing everyone's No. 1 but they're supposed to be bigger schools (in classification) so their No. 2 or 3 should be as good as our No. 1," said Senestraro. "I have no control over all that, I can only control trying to put our best team out there. They're bigger schools, they're supposed to be better than us."
The numbers haven't born that out to be true, however.
Ashland's Brady Thomas earned the pitching victories against North, South and Grants Pass, allowing a combined 11 hits. Flynn gave up only four hits to Crater, while Roseburg banged out nine hits to go with its 13 free passes.
"We played all those 6A teams but only gave up five or six runs so did they not play their best hitters, too?" added Senestraro. "It ticks me off a little bit when I hear that stuff. I get the feeling that people don't think we can compete with those guys and I'd tell you right now that I think we're the best team in the Rogue Valley, and I'd love to play Roseburg again."
Acclaim or not, the real issue may be Ashland's lack of experience against top-flight competition as it gears up for yet another deep playoff run. The Grizzlies have reached the 5A semifinals the past four years, finishing runner-up last year after winning it all in 2008.
While Senestraro agrees that a team certainly learns the most about itself when pressed and can gain confidence for seeing — and hitting — top-tier pitching, such situations aren't that necessary to experience if you prepare the right way in practice sessions.
"Is anybody ever really ready when you're talking about seeing a lockdown pitcher?" says the coach. "You face those great guys and they're tough, but we got nine hits off the all-state guy Graham at Roseburg and he's supposed to be a pretty good one. You cannot prepare for the great pitchers. The pitching machine can't do it, I can't do it in batting practice, those guys are studs and you just have to step up and do your best."
In reality, Senestraro says the Grizzlies have been able to fare pretty well in the postseason without really getting challenged in past years. Ashland lost only one game in a four-year span as a member of the now-defunct Southern Sky Conference that included Crater, Klamath Union, Eagle Point and Mazama.
"I believe that our kids are better prepared practice-wise than anybody, I really do," says Senestraro, noting Ashland players take 200 to 250 swings per day. "We get quality reps and we challenge those kids."
Such a system has helped Ashland outscore teams on average by a 10-4 margin.
"I'm more worried about our pitching than our hitting," adds Senestraro. "I believe in the bottom of my heart we can hit anybody, but our pitching is not what it used to be."
That said, few teams have enjoyed the type of pitching the Grizzlies have had in recent years with Sam Gaviglio, Ian Kendall, Garrett Tygerson and Charlie Sebrell, among others.
"We'll see where we end up," concludes the coach. "We'll prepare the best we can and do what we can. This year's no different."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Kris_Henry