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Comets get nod in tough SSC

The softball coaches in the Southern Sky Conference predicted how their teams would finish in a preseason poll.

Each did it in about the time it takes to draw a breath.

There are only four teams in the conference, as Klamath Union doesn't have a program, but what the SSC lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. And there's a strong feeling that the three teams that advance to the state playoffs will represent Southern Oregon well.

"I really believe the Southern Sky is the best or the second best league in the state in Class 5A," says Mazama coach Todd Nickerson, who has most of his starters back from the Class 3A runner-up of a year ago. "I think Crater is the best, but I think we can compete for second. It's really kind of a crapshoot. We could finish second or third and be really happy with that."

Nickerson isn't the only one who thinks the Comets are the best. They received three first-place votes in the balloting and are tabbed to win it all. Eagle Point, Mazama and Ashland follow, but no team should be taken lightly.

Yes, Crater returns six starters, five of whom made the all-Southern Oregon Conference second team last year, when Crater tied for second and made its 11th straight appearance at state.

But Eagle Point has eight starters back and another player, shortstop Terrah Whipple, who sat out in 2006 but now is packing a potent bat.

And while Mazama is stepping up in class against the trio of former SOC clubs, it has eight starters back from its banner season.

Ashland hasn't enjoyed the success of the others, but it, too, brings back half-a-dozen starters who are young but who have been through the fray. And it has possibly the most powerful pitcher in sophomore Bella Pribyl.

"This league has a lot of returning players, and I think that's going to make for an exciting season the whole way through," says Crater coach Chris Arnold, who is in his sixth season. "I'd like to think we'll be in there competing for the top spot."

Because the conference schedule was put together before Klamath Union decided against fielding a team, there are gaps in the schedule. Crater visits Mazama for a noon doubleheader today to begin league play, but Ashland doesn't start until Tuesday and Eagle Point until next Saturday.

Each team plays the others four times — home and away twin bills.

Crater (10-2) will lean heavily on senior pitcher Ashleigh Cuddie, who is 5-1 as the team's ace and contributes at the plate with a .370 batting average.

"Ashleigh is a very talented pitcher," says Arnold. "Since we do play doubleheaders, it's very difficult for pitchers. We're going to count on her to eat up a lot of innings, for sure. She's a workhorse. She's smaller in frame and stature but she has a huge heart."

Catcher Susan Winningham, shortstop Haley Hevern and outfielders Kristen Haga and Emily Morrill were all second-team choices last season.

Winningham is batting .583 in the preseason and Hevern .486.

Arnold has emphasized both a "creative" and a "disciplined" approach at the plate, using slap hits and waiting out pitchers in an effort to get base runners.

"We have a lot of strong hitters," he says, "and we can be very creative offensively."

Defense is also getting attention. Last year in a 10-0 first-round playoff loss to Tualatin, the Comets committed four errors that led to five unearned runs.

"We learned last year that the further you get in the season," says Arnold, "defensive mistakes can kill you."

As much as Crater would like to put the Tualatin loss behind it, the Comets are using it as motivation.

"We've had several playoff years where it's been one and out," says Arnold. "We've talked a lot about what it takes to be successful in the playoffs. We're definitely thinking about that second season."

Eagle Point (10-2) hasn't been to the second season since 1997.

Keith Williams coached the Eagles in 2002-03, then stepped down. Now he's back, and he likes the make-up of his team.

"Crater's got the edge in terms of experience and having been there," says Williams. "I think we're as talented as Crater. Whether that gets us there or not remains to be seen."

Pitcher Kirsten Emigh has been impressive in the preseason, going 8-0 with a 1.16 ERA. She's only walked four batters in 481/3 innings.

With Whipple hitting .484, with three home runs and 15 RBIs, and Emigh coming in at a .405 clip, EP isn't short on offensive firepower.

Nor is Mazama (10-2), which will ride the arm of Ali Edwards and the bat of Quenby Cox. Only a sophomore, Edwards is 29-2 in her career and is on pace to break the school wins record of 58. Cox owns school home run records for a season (nine last year) and career (13). Cox and center fielder Ashley McDaniel were first-team all-state last year.

"I'm really looking forward to playing in this league and seeing how good we are," says Nickerson. " ... This year, we have to play softball. The pitching is outstanding and defense is really good. The challenge for us will be scoring runs against good pitchers as we step up in competition. There aren't any weak sisters."

One of the top pitchers the league will see is Pribyl. She's struck out as many as 16 batters in a game and has helped Ashland to a 6-6 record — with three losses coming in extra innings.

The Grizzlies have only one senior in first baseman April Jorgensen.

"It'll be interesting," says coach Misty Potochnick. "We haven't played anyone in the region. Every team, I think, will be pretty tough. I think we can finish second or third. Definitely the goal for us is to make it to the playoffs."

CRATER

COACH: Chris Arnold (sixth year).

LAST YEAR: 17-12, 7-5 SOC.

CURRENT RECORD: 10-2.

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Pos Yr.

Ashleigh Cuddie P Sr.

Susan Winningham C Sr.

Haley Hevern SS Sr.

Kristen Haga OF Sr.

Emily Morrill OF Jr.

Ashleigh Larson 2B Jr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Kara Perdue 3B Jr.

Becca Lokeno Util Sr.

Breyanna Reed P Jr.

Amanda Bates OF Jr.

Mariann DeClerck 1B So.

AT A GLANCE: Crater has made the state playoffs for 11 consecutive seasons, and that string is expected to continue with little difficulty. Five players return who were second-team all-Southern Oregon Conference last season: Cuddie, Winningham, Hevern, Morrill and Haga. ... In nonconference play, Cuddie is 5-1 with a 3.26 ERA and has appeared in 11 games. Winningham, first-team all-SOC as a sophomore, has been a leader at the plate as well as in the field, boasting team highs among the regulars in batting average (.583), hits (21), on-base percentage (.625) and sharing the lead in stolen bases (eight). "She's a spark plug on offense and defense," says Arnold. "Susan is one of those kids who gets it. She understands the game and how to talk with her teammates to encourage them and challenge them. She's a gamer." ... The Comets have emphasized manufacturing runs and defense, and Arnold is pleased with the results.

EAGLE POINT

COACH: Keith Williams (first year).

LAST YEAR: 3-9, 3-11 SOC.

CURRENT RECORD: 10-2.

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Pos Yr.

Kirsten Emigh P/OF Sr.

Dawn Wilkerson 2B Sr.

Brooke Griggs C Sr.

Tenille Anderson 1B Sr.

Carissa Schauffler OF Sr.

Katie Jolliffe 3B Jr.

Trinity Hamner LF Sr.

Kayla Mathis RF Jr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Terrah Whipple SS Sr.

Ashley Josephson Utility Jr.

Carlie Stephens P/1B Fr.

Nikki Davis OF/INF Jr.

AT A GLANCE: Eagle Point doesn't have the playoff pedigree as Crater and Mazama, but the Eagles can't be overlooked. In keeping with the league's theme, they have eight returning starters and should make a serious bid for the program's first state-playoff berth since 1997. ... Do-it-all Emigh will be a key. She has an 8-0 pitching record, with a 1.16 ERA in 481/3 innings. She's fanned 58 and walked only four while giving up 32 hits. At the plate, Emigh's hitting .405 with five doubles and eight RBIs. ... Whipple sat out last year but has returned with a bang, hitting .484 with three homers, 15 RBIs and an .862 slugging percentage. Her return allows Wilkerson to move back to her best position, second base. Jolliffe is batting .360 and Wilkerson .344. ... Josephson was second-team all-SOC last year. ... Defensively, the Eagles "haven't give up a lot of extra outs with errors," says Williams.

MAZAMA

COACH: Todd Nickerson (sixth year).

LAST YEAR: 23-4, 16-2 Skyline.

CURRENT RECORD: 10-2.

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Pos Yr.

Ali Edwards P So.

Becky Borror C Sr.

Ann Bocchi 1B Sr.

Chelsie McDaniel 2B Sr.

Lacey Garrett SS So.

Chelsea Whiteley 3B Jr.

Ashlie McDaniel CF Sr.

Quenby Cox RF Sr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Darian Grigsby OF Fr.

Sondra Hamilton OF Jr.

Talisa Taylor INF Jr.

Kaylee Hunter OF Jr.

AT A GLANCE: Mazama steps up in class, the lone SSC team that didn't come from the Southern Oregon Conference. But the Vikings don't figure to be intimidated. They were Class 3A state runner-up last season, losing 8-2 to Elmira. Eight returners this season received all-Skyline Conference mention last year, including five first-teamers. ... Pitcher Edwards leads the way. Going into today's opener, she has a career record of 29-2 and is on pace to break the school record of 58 career wins set by Miken Miller. "She's not real overpowering," says Nickerson. "She throws strikes and lets her defense work for her. She's not a hard thrower by any stretch, but she can hit her spots and she competes real well." ... Cox and Ashlie McDaniel were first-team all-state choices. Cox holds school records for home runs in a season (nine last year) and a career (13).

ASHLAND

COACH: Misty Potochnick (second year).

LAST YEAR: 6-15, 0-12 SOC.

CURRENT RECORD: 6-6.

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Pos Yr.

April Jorgensen 1B Sr.

Samantha Gilbert 2B Jr.

Kylie Cantrell C/OF Jr.

Amanda Good 3B So.

Bella Pribyl P So.

Sara Silbowitz SS So.

OTHER NOTABLES

Hayley Ross P/OF Fr.

Jubilee Sharpe OF So.

Carley Santee OF/C Fr.

Chryssy Braught OF So.

Elizabeth Westmoreland OF Fr.

Caitlin Williams Util Fr.

AT A GLANCE: Ashland's players gained significant experience last year and won't be a pushover. "We grew up a lot in one year," says Potochnick. Three of the Grizzlies' six losses have come in extra innings. "That's the thing with us," says the coach. "Being so young, the games we've lost it's been a one-inning thing. If everything clicks right, we can be really tough." ... Especially with Pribyl on the hill. The power pitcher struck out 16 batters against Skyview and 12 against Henley. She's been building stamina as she goes, which will be important because the league plays doubleheaders. "She definitely has a lot of pop on her pitches," says Potochnick. ... Silbowitz and Gilbert spark the offense, both hitting around .400, and Good and Ross aren't far behind. Jorgensen supplies power, and the speedy Sharpe has been working on slap hitting from the left side of the plate.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com

Crater pitcher Ashleigh Cuddie has a 5-1 record and is hitting .370 for the favored Comets. - Roy Musitelli