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As far as trips to Arizona go, there really wasn't much positive for Ashland's baseball team during its season-opening excursion in late March.
The Grizzlies endured three losses in three days, occasional dust storms and a few sunburns to boot.
Ever since returning to their home state, however, everything has come up just right for Ashland. The Class 5A squad has reeled off 12 straight wins heading into today's game against Phoenix at Hagler-James Field in Talent.
In many ways, according to second-year Ashland head coach John Wallace, the trip south had a lot to do with where his team stands now as the No. 2 team in the 5A power rankings.
"We decided after Arizona that we weren't really as good as some of us on the team maybe thought we were and we needed to make a change," said Wallace. "I think it really hit home with the seniors and a lot of the leaders on our team."
As is often the case, Wallace said the Grizzlies simply went back to the basics in order to turn things around.
"We preached in practice that we had to get back to just catching and throwing the baseball and having quality at-bats," said the coach. "The kids have really responded and held each other accountable, and once it starts coming from them rather than always from the coaching staff, that's when you start becoming a real team."
In short order, Ashland went from a winless team to one that was playing toe-to-toe with some of the state's best. The Grizzlies were the first Oregon team to beat Class 3A Cascade Christian, which is in the top 10 of the power rankings for its classification, then went on to beat 4A Phoenix to give rise to a potential turnaround.
Where Ashland really came together was during a five-day span when the Grizzlies topped three quality teams in Henley, Crater and Hidden Valley. The Hornets are the defending 4A state champions and a top contender again this year — and that 11-6 loss is their only blemish to date — while the Comets, who were shut out 2-0, are expected to challenge for the 6A crown and the 4A Mustangs were undefeated before falling 6-3 to Ashland.
Ashland's 10th straight win involved a come-from-behind performance last Thursday against another 6A power (Roseburg) and definitely helped serve notice that the Grizzlies. Ashland scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh to extend the game, then won 9-8 in the eighth on a walk-off walk to senior Vince Cammarota.
"It's been a lot of fun going up against those guys because they're some of the best teams in the state at all of their classifications," said Wallace. "And, really, that's all we can test ourselves on."
As one of only two 5A teams in Southern Oregon — Eagle Point is the other — Ashland has an entire baseball schedule devoid of 5A competition beyond the Eagles, who are 1-11. That makes for a lot of head-scratching when it comes to the Grizzlies trying to size themselves up against the state's other top 5A teams.
"It's kind of crazy when you think about it," said Wallace. "We'll kind of go into the state playoffs blind. We'll have no idea of the caliber of players we'll face because we don't see them during summer or school ball. It's hard to get a read on the rest of the state when you don't play any 5A teams outside of Eagle Point."
"I'd almost know what we'd be getting if we were going up against 6A schools in having to prepare ourselves," he added of a schedule that includes future games with Grants Pass, North Medford and South Medford. "But that's the way it is living in Southern Oregon and those are the cards we're dealt to play."
That Ashland is competitive in baseball is no surprise, the Grizzlies advanced at least as far as the 5A semifinals from 2007-10 and returned a host of players from a team that finished last year with the state's No. 1 power ranking.
That top ranking proved to be more of a curse than a blessing last year when Ashland was bounced from the state playoffs in its opening-round game against Madison. It also set the wheels in motion for a certain reality check only days into the season this year.
"Having the No. 1 seed isn't always what it's made out to be," said Wallace. "The bull's-eye on your chest means you're going to get everyone's best shot and last year we weren't up for that. I think that still holds true for our guys this time around when it comes to thinking about that ranking. They know what happened last year and they've learned those rankings don't mean a whole ton because we have to be ready come playoff time. That's all that really matters."
Helping set the standard thus far has been a nice blend of varsity returners and players who are stepping up when it's their time to shine.
Senior third baseman Eric Carlson has been an opponent's nightmare in the batter's box, hitting a robust .583 thus far with a .750 slugging percentage. Carlson's 21 RBIs lead the team, along with both hitting percentages, and he's scored 14 runs.
Providing a nice complement at the top of the order has been senior center fielder Bryce Rogan, who is hitting .367 with a team-best 18 runs scored in the leadoff spot to go with 14 RBIs and a .592 slugging percentage.
"Eric Carlson has been swinging the bat great all year," said Wallace, "and Bryce Rogan really sets the tone for the team."
Freshman designated hitter Nick Sanderson (.353, 12 runs, 13 RBIs), sophomore second baseman Jose Perez (.333) and sophomore shortstop Aaron Scott (.314) have helped turn the lineup over, while junior left fielder Max Montgomery is second on the team in runs scored (16) to go with a .342 batting average.
On the mound, junior Steen Fredrickson has been steady with a 5-1 record and 1.20 ERA. The right-hander averages one strikeout per inning and has limited his walks to 12 in 35 innings. Fredrickson, who also plays in right field, is hitting .327 with 11 runs and 13 RBIs.
Senior pitcher Tommy Hulick is 3-0 and was masterful in keeping Crater's bats quiet, while fellow senior Carter Glick may have the toughest task of all on the team and yet still seems to find a way to get his various jobs done. Glick is the team's starting catcher and is also a key contributor on the mound, which is where he saw considerable success last summer for the American Legion AAA Medford Mustangs.
"He's carrying a heavy load," Wallace said of Glick, who boasts a 2-1 record and 5.82 ERA. "It's not easy catching every day and then going out to throw on the mound."
The best part for Ashland is that the Grizzlies haven't reached their potential as they hit the midway point of the regular season.
"We still haven't gotten to where we need to be from a fundamental standpoint," said Wallace. "It's honestly not always pretty but we keep preaching to the guys that you're going to make mistakes, it's about what's going to happen next and how you're going to respond with teammates picking up other teammates."
If the turnaround from Arizona is any indication, what happens next stands to be pretty exciting.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry