With five starters and six players overall for the Ashland Pilots currently overseas wearing football helmets instead of baseball caps, first-year manager Josh Leedy is getting a crash course in how to deal with adversity these days.

With five starters and six players overall for the Ashland Pilots currently overseas wearing football helmets instead of baseball caps, first-year manager Josh Leedy is getting a crash course in how to deal with adversity these days.

Already charged with the daunting task of leading Ashland to a potential third straight American Legion A state title when tournament play begins Friday, the hits apparently just keep coming for Leedy.

Missing in action for the eight-team tourney at North Medford High will be Ashland's top pitcher and cleanup hitter Lucas Stone, shortstop and leadoff hitter Nick Hall, third baseman Brent Hegdahl, catcher A.J. Adams, outfielder Lee Dodds and reserve utility player Taylor Humphrey.

All six are in Osaka, Japan, preparing for the Pacific Rim Bowl, a football clash between Ashland High and a Japanese all-star team that dates back to 1988.

"To lose those guys, it's big," says Leedy, "but we haven't had all our guys consistently all summer long so it's not as big as some would think it would be."

The Area 4 South champions still boast a bevy of young talent and Leedy says it's just a matter of the players facing the challenge head on when the Pilots (35-6, 26-6 Area 4) open the double-elimination tourney at 9 a.m. Friday against the Sheldon Irish.

In Friday's other openers, Roseburg Pepsi plays Area 4 runner-up Klamath Falls Hawks at noon, LaGrande Subway faces the North Eugene Highlanders at 3 p.m. and host North Medford squares off against the Salem Senators at 6 p.m.

"Every single one of our players has played at least at the state tournament level for All-Stars or Legion tournaments, so we've got experience at the state level and with high caliber baseball," says Leedy. "I'm not too worried about plugging guys in at the state level."

Heading the charge for Ashland will be Hayden Miller, who has played a key role in the Pilots claiming the past two state championships. Miller was an all-state utility player this past spring for the Grizzlies but Leedy says work duties have kept him from much action this summer.

Still, Miller sports a 5-0 pitching record — second only to Stone's 8-1 mark — and will get the call to the mound Friday against the pitching-rich Irish.

"The guy's just a stud and can play anywhere in the field," says Leedy. "He has a great mental approach and is very confident and a good leader."

Following Friday's start, Leedy says he expects Miller to step behind the plate and play catcher until his next turn in the rotation.

Truth be told, according to Leedy, the Pilots have six starting pitchers in town to call upon and help make up for the loss of Stone.

"That's the one spot where we didn't get too thin," says the manager.

One such starter expects to be Brady Thomas, who has slowly recovered from a shoulder injury in May and should be in fine form for the tournament. Thomas was the winning pitcher in last year's state championship victory over North Medford and, even though he doesn't have a decision this year, has pitched well down the stretch for the Pilots.

Another key for the Pilots will be in the play of Luke Baldrica, who leads the team with seven home runs and has played a solid center field. Designated hitter Kealii Cecil has hit five homers this summer, with Hall and Stone both belting three.

Leedy also expects big things from second baseman Ethan Schlecht, pitcher Max Anderson and Billy Hansen, who will slide into the shortstop role and move up the batting order to offset the loss of Hall. Hansen boasts a 3-1 record, while Schlecht is 3-2 and Anderson 2-0.

Evan Westhelle will start behind the dish in the first game, then platoon at second base with Schlecht.

Leedy says he's "kinda in the dark" about the tournament field outside of Klamath Falls and North Medford, but adds that he expects a lot of competition as his team strives for a third straight state title.

The Mavericks (26-10, 22-10 Area 4) earned a spot in the tournament by virtue of being the tourney host, but Leedy says North Medford is one team he would never underestimate winning it all — especially with Brett Wolfe calling the shots.

"I know North will always compete," says Leedy. "No matter what happened the game before, coach Wolfe will always get those guys ready to play. They were the only team in the league to beat us in a series this year. They took 3-of-4 from us so I've got to be leery of those guys."

Leading the way this summer for North Medford has been a blend of returners and newcomers in Shaun Whitehead, Cody James, Cory Pine, Phillip Jovanovic, Cory Haggans, Michael Paxton, Jessie Hornbrook and Michael Bradshaw.

"I expect us to do really well and compete," says Wolfe. "We're in a tough bracket with Roseburg and Klamath Falls and Salem, but that's a good opportunity when you get to play against good competition. It'll be a challenge but I'm looking forward to it."

Despite not taking the mound last year for the Mavericks, Whitehead has been instrumental on the mound this summer, posting a 5-1 record and ERA in the 1.70 range.

James missed last year's state tournament after suffering a knee injury but brings a big bat to the No. 3 spot, while Haggans is solid in center field and Pine returns for his second year at catcher.

Hornbrook has blossomed at third base this summer and in the cleanup spot, and the Mavs have gotten a big lift at the plate from right fielder Phillip Jovanovic.

After missing last year due to illness, Paxton has stepped in at shortstop and played well and Wolfe said he also expects good things this weekend from left-handed pitcher Chris Anderson.

North Medford's opening-round foe, the Salem Senators, are a team comprised of players from North Salem, South Salem and Sprague high schools.

"They're a combination Legion A team so I'm sure they're pretty good and pretty deep with pitchers," said Wolfe. "I've talked to some people who have seen them play and I'm told their very fast and they have a lot of good athletes so it'll be a challenge for us, for sure."

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