Ashland came within one victory of playing for the Class 5A baseball state championship last year, but even head coach Don Senestraro admits he's not sure his team was ready to take that next step in 2007.

Ashland came within one victory of playing for the Class 5A baseball state championship last year, but even head coach Don Senestraro admits he's not sure his team was ready to take that next step in 2007.

That feeling doesn't exist these days.

"I think last year was different," says Senestraro, whose team lost in the state semifinals. "We were just happy to be there after making a good run there to the end. The kids played great but I don't know if we had the horses to get there (to the title game). This year, since our first team meeting, our goal was to get there because we knew we had the talent and the experience."

The Southern Sky Conference champions will certainly be put to the test Saturday when they take on top-ranked Thurston from the Midwestern League. Game time for the 5A championship will be 1:30 p.m. at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer.

Thurston (26-2) enters the title game averaging 9.5 runs per game and on a 16-game winning streak. The Colts are back in the state playoffs for the first time since 2003 but boast all the necessary experience they need in senior starting pitcher Darrell Hunter.

It was Hunter who helped put an end to Ashland's playoff run last year as a member of the Churchill baseball team. The right-hander came on in relief with his team leading 6-5 in the fourth inning and allowed only one run on four hits over the final four innings.

Hunter went on to take the loss against Crater in the championship game but still allowed only five hits and no earned runs in a 2-1 loss to the heavy-hitting Comets.

"He's a great pitcher," says Senestraro of the former Lancer. "He doesn't throw hard but his ball has a lot of movement. He shut Crater down last year and Crater was a great hitting team last year, so you know he's good."

While past experience against a pitcher often can be helpful, Senestraro says he's not sure how much that will help his Grizzlies (27-2), who have won 20 straight and average almost eight runs per contest.

"Look at the difference a year made in someone like Sam (Gaviglio)," the fourth-year coach says of the SSC's pitcher of the year. "He's going to be a better, smarter pitcher. It may help a little that we're not in awe or anything, but I don't think it'll work in our advantage too much."

Hunter was named the Midwestern League co-player of the year this season, along with North Eugene's Tim Keller, and has been one of the Colts' leading hitters as well.

"He's done a great job," says Thurston coach Phil Dube of Hunter, who is 9-0 with a 0.90 ERA thus far. "There's no doubt we're not where we're at without him."

Hunter hit .383 with 31 RBIs last year and leads the Colts in RBIs this season. He's joined by junior Skip Spencer, who boasts the team's highest batting average, junior Kyle Hoover and senior Colin Schauermann as the top home-run threats for Thurston.

Juniors Danny Urness and Tym Pearson have also been key contributors for the Colts' high-powered offense.

"They can score a lot of runs, that's for sure," says Senestraro, whose Grizzlies are in the playoffs for the sixth time in the past eight years.

Dube expects some nervousness in the Thurston dugout since no one besides Hunter has experienced playoff games at such a high level.

"If the boys weren't nervous, I would be worried for them," says Dube, in his first year at Thurston after nine years at Marist. "That's part of the game. You get an opportunity to go and play a game of this magnitude, you're going to have some nerves. I think both teams will face that, and the game's probably going to come down to who can keep their wits about them."

With Hunter's resume and Gaviglio's senior-season surge, a pitcher's duel is as likely as anything. The Colts have allowed only three runs per game, compared to around two by the No. 4-ranked Grizzlies.

Gaviglio is 12-0 with a 0.53 ERA, striking out 101 and walking only 13 in 80 innings. Junior right-hander Charlie Sebrell is 9-1 with a 1.39 ERA and 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 702/3 innings.

"I really think it's going to be a pitcher's duel," says Senestraro. "If we can score five runs, I'll be very, very happy."

Ashland is certainly capable of putting up runs in bunches with a potent lineup from one to nine.

Senior Owen Baldrica, who went from honorable mention all-league status as a junior to this season's SSC player of the year, has wielded the biggest bat thus far with his 41 RBIs and .435 batting average. Baldrica also has scored 28 runs and is tied for team-high honors in home runs (five) and doubles (eight) with Gaviglio.

Senior Max Gordon is hitting .433 with 28 runs and 18 RBIs in the leadoff spot, while junior Hayden Miller (.381, 17 RBIs), Gaviglio (.346, 32 RBIs) and junior Lewis Sebrell (.347, 16 RBIs) have also been key contributors.

Miller also stepped up in Tuesday's semifinal win over Pendleton, taking over for a sick Lewis Sebrell to handle catcher duties. Sebrell returned to school on Thursday and is expected to be in the lineup Saturday.

"Those Sebrell boys are the most competitive kids you'll ever meet," says Senestraro of the juniors. "They don't accept losing, and they'll give every ounce of energy to make your team better."

Senestraro says he's been pleased with the performance of each Grizzly, but the most pleasant surprise may have come in the form of sophomore second baseman Nick Hall, who is batting .350 and has been rock solid defensively. It was Hall's two-run single that helped vault Ashland ahead of Pendleton during Tuesday's 8-1 semifinal victory.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com