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Pilots fall short of playoffs

The Ashland Pilots went into the last day of the regular season feeling pretty good about their playoff chances, but for reasons they could and could not control those expectations proved to be overly optimistic.

Area 4 South champion Central Point swept Ashland 9-5 and 11-1 at Anhorn Field in Central Point on Sunday to keep the Pilots out of the American Legion A Oregon state tournament, which begins Wednesday at the same site.

The Pilots entered the twin bill believing a split would be good enough to clinch a spot in the state tournament for the second year in a row but found out near the end of Sunday’s opener that the situation had changed. The South Medford Colts, who by all accounts were battling Ashland and North Medford for the third and final Area 4 South playoff spot, had its entire season wiped off the books — the nature of the violation is still unclear, but essentially, says Ashland head coach Mike Franko, the Colts did not field an official team in 2016.

The 11th-hour change-up meant that games between Area 4 South opponents and the Colts did not count — as forfeits or otherwise — and therefore, the standings needed to be readjusted. The news was particularly costly for the Pilots (17-10, 7-9 Area 4 South), who had won three of four games against South Medford.

The situation was so confusing, Franko on Monday afternoon still wasn’t completely sure that his team’s season was over, instead referring to the decision as “fairly official.”

“There was a lot of ambiguity (Sunday) based on the Legion board,” he said.

Still, a sweep against Central Point likely would have landed Ashland in the postseason, and Franko did not want to use Sunday’s surprise announcement as an excuse.

“We didn’t find that out until the tail end of our first game, which was unfortunate,” he said, “But at the same time we had two games to play (Sunday) and Crater was the better team.”

When asked if he would have changed his strategy had he known the situation, Franko didn’t hesitate.

“One-hundred and fifty percent,” he said. “But any way you look at it we played to win both those games (Sunday), so I don’t look at it like that. It was unfortunate to hear that kind of halfway through the game and not knowing going in the magnitude of it and kind of prepping the guys maybe a little bit differently. But at the same time, we knew going in that we wanted to take care of business and we didn’t get it done.”

Caleb Bell went 2-for-2 for Ashland in the opener, but took the loss on the mound. In Game 2, Ashland ace Peyton Fuller was tagged with the loss after the Comets (32-6, 16-4) jumped out to a 7-0 lead through two.

The losses capped an up-and-down summer for the Pilots, who lost two of their first three games before reeling off eight straight wins, and earned what looked like a crucial split against North Medford last Wednesday by taking the second game of the doubleheader, 8-4.

Franko said the season was a success overall.

“We had a lot of younger guys that had a chance to play some positions that they’re going to potentially play next year during the (spring) season,” he said. “And so there were a lot of positives and nice hard work that was done throughout the summer for those younger guys. And the leadership that the older guys exuded was also very prevalent. So overall, despite the fact that we would have liked to played a couple more games, it was a very, very great summer for a lot of the guys. We just didn’t play well yesterday and it didn’t pan out for us.”

Franko said a few players stood out.

“I was really super impressed with Caleb Bell pitching,” he said. “I thought he threw the ball exceptionally well. Unfortunately yesterday, he didn’t get very many breaks. But all in all, throughout the entire summer I thought he threw the ball extremely well.

“I thought Jesse Carroll started throwing the baseball great again. He’s going to be somebody you’re going to hear about and see blossom next year. He really improved and kind of owned those innings he was given.”

Franko, in his first year as Pilots’ head coach, added that Nate and Evan McLennan also emerged as future stars.

“Both the McLennan brothers played great baseball,” he said. “Nate improved hitting wise. I think it was a great summer for him to get as many live at bats as he possibly could, because he hasn’t played as much in previous summers. And Evan being as young as he is has a bright future as well. Both those brothers played great baseball and I’m very excited to see those guys continue to hone their skills.”