Chuck Thacker still remembers the first time he was impressed by Ashland High pitcher Sam Gaviglio.

Chuck Thacker still remembers the first time he was impressed by Ashland High pitcher Sam Gaviglio.

It was seven years ago, and Gaviglio, then 11, was pitching for Ashland's 11-12 Little League all-star team. Thacker, Ashland's unofficial pitching guru who has made a habit of teaching youngsters the fundamentals of the position, even remembers the opponent: South Suburban, a Klamath Falls team.

Gaviglio was one of the youngest players on that team, but he didn't play like it. The silky smooth windup, the whiplash arm, the free-flowing follow through — it was all there, built in and prepackaged.

"He always had that," recalls Thacker. "That's the key, and you can't teach that, necessarily. You can show people what to do, but that athleticism that he has is something that almost can't be taught.

"You can show anybody the mechanics, but it doesn't mean they're going to look like that."

Few high school pitchers do "look like that."

The senior right-hander, who is being wooed by both Oregon State and the University of Oregon, enters today's Class 5A state championship game against Thurston with a stat line that practically defines the term "shutdown pitcher." He has a 0.53 ERA, 101 strikeouts against just 13 walks and two shutouts. In a streak that ended Tuesday, he went 37 consecutive innings without allowing a run — earned or unearned. It almost goes without saying that Gaviglio is perfect on the season, with a 12-0 record.

His dominance even alters the team's offensive strategy. And why not. One measly first-inning run is usually no big deal, but if Gaviglio's pitching, the game may already be over.

"Whenever Sam's on the mound, I'm just trying to get one run an inning," Ashland head coach Don Senestraro said, referring to the Grizzlies' small-ball tendencies. "If I can score three or four runs, I think we've got a pretty good chance to win."

That wasn't the case last season, when Gaviglio, saddled with a sore throwing shoulder, struggled at times to find the strike zone and drifted in and out of Ashland's rotation. That all changed somewhat suddenly last summer during an American Legion playoff game against North Medford.

Senestraro called on Gaviglio, who was still working out control issues.

Problem solved.

"He came in and he just took control of the game," Senestraro said, "and I think from then on, it was Sam as we know him now."

Well, almost. Gaviglio still had one more transformation to make. After his sore shoulder healed, the 6-foot-1 hurler hit the bullpen hard over the offseason in an effort to increase the speed of his fastball and gain control of his change-up. He did both, defying his own expectations by adding at least 5 mph to a fastball that was already in the low 80s. In Tuesday's win over Pendleton, Gaviglio's fastball was clocked at 91 mph.

That's fast, but not fast enough all by itself. He still needed a change-up to keep hitters off balance, and for years Gaviglio struggled to get that "touch pitch" down. Then, Gaviglio says, it just clicked.

"I got it within like a couple days of working with (Thacker)," he said. "It made a big difference. It gives me another pitch to work with and it keeps them guessing a little bit more."

A lot more, actually. On Tuesday, Gaviglio showed just how lethal that 1-2 punch can be when he struck out a Pendleton batter with a 76 mph off-speed pitch — a knee-buckler that prompted the scouts on hand to break out the radar guns.

"That's his money pitch," said Senestraro, who calls every Ashland pitch from the bench. "He's always had a good fastball, a good curveball, but man, that change-up is the one that has put him over the top. The college coaches that I've talked to, they can find fastballs and curveballs all over the state, but when they saw the change-up, that change-up's unhittable. It's a great pitch for him."

Gaviglio is so comfortable with that pitch now that Senestraro won't hesitate to call it in any situation — even on a full count. It worked well in the semifinals. It will probably be a big part of Ashland's game plan again today.

That kind of control is standard procedure with pretty much any pitch Gaviglio throws these days, as his ability to hit spots under pressure has become virtually automatic.

"If he misses a pitch in a location and you call it again, nine times out of 10 he's going to hit it," Ashland catcher Lewis Sebrell said. "He's not going to miss it twice."

If any team can get to Gaviglio, however, it may be top-ranked Thurston (26-2). Sporting arguably the best batting lineup in the state, the Colts average 9.5 runs per game and enter the finals on a 16-game winning streak. And they have their own ace — Darrell Hunter, a transfer from Churchill who is 9-0 with a 0.90 ERA.

If Gaviglio is nervous, he's not showing it.

"It's what we've wanted all season and it will be a challenge," he said. "I think we're ready for that."

Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 482-3456, ext. 224, or joe.zavala@dailytidings.com