No fluke, Ashland the favorite
ASHLAND - Call it a fluke.
Suggest the door was left open by a somewhat down year for the powers that be in Southern Oregon Conference baseball.
Say whatever you want about Ashland winning its first-ever SOC title last year, it happened.
And if the opinion of the SOC baseball coaches carries any weight, most believe it's going to happen again.
Ashland far and away returns the most all-conference players, the most returning starters, the favorite for SOC player of the year ... the list goes on and on.
"On paper, those guys should win it," Eagle Point coach Tom Britton says of the Grizzlies. "They're loaded, and they're loaded where they need to be. It's Ashland's to win, and to lose."
The preseason coaches' poll provides further evidence that Britton isn't alone in his thinking. Ashland garnered first-place votes from every opposing coach except one - coaches can't vote for their own teams. It garnered 48 points overall in a system where 49 is the maximum available.
North Medford finished second with 40 points, followed by Roseburg (37) and Crater (35), with the latter two teams each landing a first-place vote.
None of that should matter if the Grizzlies show the poise they did in winning their first SOC title last year with a predominantly junior-led squad.
"We got some breaks last year, I'll be the first to admit that," says Ashland coach Doug Stover. "But sometimes when you get on a roll, breaks go your way.
"Our whole theory this year is we have to go out and prove that we are the SOC champs and that we want to be right back there again this year."
Ashland will get a huge test in Tuesday's SOC-openers when the Grizzlies travel to face Roseburg. Also Tuesday, Crater plays at Eagle Point, Grants Pass is at North Medford and South Medford is at Klamath Union.
All but one starter returns from an Ashland team that finished one game ahead of Crater and North Medford last year. Leading the pack are returning first-team all-stars Mike Allen, Bill Rowe and Titus Weston.
Allen went 6-0 with a 1.37 ERA in SOC action last year, missing one doubleheader due to illness, while also batting .342 as Ashland's cleanup hitter.
At 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, Allen more than has the frame to put the team on his shoulders again this season.
"Everybody calls him 'The Horse,'" says Stover. "You give him the ball and he goes out to throw seven innings."
The senior right-hander says he worked hard in the off-season to improve his velocity and gain control of the mental aspects of the game.
"When you're pitching, it's a lot more mental than it is physical," says Allen. "I've really worked on my focus and my visualization when I'm out on the mound."
The team leader is quick to caution those expecting a repeat of last season's dominance.
"Even if I am a better pitcher this year, I might not have as good of a record," adds Allen. "You never know in baseball. I just want to stay tough and not get caught slipping in my game."
Should Allen slip at all, there's a wealth of talent in Grizzly uniforms to pick him up.
Rowe is a sweet-swinging lefty who hit .325 with 14 RBIs as a junior first baseman in the SOC last year, while third baseman Weston hit .372.
"When he's on, I don't see anybody being a better hitter in the entire state than Bill," says Allen, who bats behind Rowe in the No. 4 hole. "He's amazing.
"Last year, I put so much into pitching that toward the end of the year my hitting kind of tailed off. This year, I want to be a strong enough hitter to where they'll have to be honest with Bill and have to give him better pitches."
Also helping to keep teams honest are returning all-stars Torr George at catcher, Ryan Decker at shortstop and Charles Dotterrer in right field.
Throw in returners Zach Brewer, Nick Danis and Chase Cook and talented newcomers Bryan Clevenger, Kyle Puderbaugh, Chad Hegdahl, Tim Hegdahl and Jake Contreras, and the team's biggest challenge might be dealing with its recent success.
"It makes it tough when you're coming off a year like we had last year," says Allen. "I don't think we're overconfident, but there are definitely a lot of things we need to work through in the mental parts of the game to make this team come together again. We can't just come out thinking we're on top like we ended last year."
After all, the SOC title last year was settled by only one game. It figures to be just as tight this time around.
"A lot of times, it's a lot easier to get it than keep it," says Stover. "We want to keep it."
And, in turn, prove last year was no fluke.
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