PREP NOTEBOOK: A softball revival at Ashland
ASHLAND — When Ashland High’s softball players took their home field positions last Wednesday, there was a different vibe than the past two years.
With a host of fans in the grandstands, from fellow students to family members to school staffers, the atmosphere just carried a feeling that the game they were about to play really meant something.
Time will tell exactly how much it meant for the Grizzlies, but they’re certainly off to a good start as the program goes from not fielding a varsity program over the past two seasons to a 13-member squad playing at the top level this spring.
“It’s pretty awesome,” said fourth-year Ashland co-head coach Amanda Linnehan of returning to varsity play. “We’ve been working really hard to get to this point, so it’s nice to see it happen.”
Even better, the Ashland girls went out and won that season opener against Mount Shasta High of California, 11-8. The win marked the Grizzlies’ first varsity triumph since going 2-20 in 2016 with wins over Illinois Valley and Springfield.
“I think that it felt really good for all of us,” said Ashland junior pitcher Ruby Adams, who struck out 11 and allowed three hits and one earned run in the victory. “Having to come from a team where you don’t win a lot of games compared to that first win, it just feels really amazing.”
“I know everyone was just super excited and super happy,” she added, “but at the end of the day it just comes down to working together as a team because I don’t think it would’ve happened without all these ladies and all these coaches sitting right next to me.”
Click here to hear more of what Adams had to say about this season:
Winning that opener provided a sweet reward for their hard work, but the true victory for the Grizzlies resides in their return to the varsity diamond and the positive steps they can make this year as they build a foundation for the future.
“I think we’re just trying to get better every game,” said Ashland co-head coach Bobby Heiken, who is also aided by assistant coach Victoria Mackey. “Both Amanda and myself have kind of a wide-open view on what the potential of the team is and sort of a realistic look at things, too. Jumping right into varsity play at the 5A level in the Midwestern League is not the easiest thing to do. There’s a lot of easier paths out there than having Eagle Point, Crater and Thurston staring you right in the face as you play your first varsity matchups.”
To wit, Ashland went up against one of the league’s top pitchers in Eagles junior Riley Shopp last Saturday in the MWL opener for both teams, and fell short 10-0 in five innings and 11-1 in six innings.
While the Grizzlies were overmatched in talent and experience, they caught the eye of one of the area’s longest tenured softball devotees in EP head coach John White.
“I think it’s really good that they have it back,” said White of Ashland’s varsity-level team. “They’ve got some good young kids and they competed all day, they didn’t roll over after we got a lead on them in both games. They really competed.”
“I think they’re going about it the right way, too,” added White. “They seem to have some kids that were excited to be there and they were really positive with them all day.”
The key to Ashland’s re-emergence on the varsity scene is a solid junior class of Adams, Ella Hart and Kallin Hakes being joined by a freshman contingent that placed third at the state 11-12 Little League Championships in 2016 and has more than held its own on the ASA/USA softball circuit.
“Their 14U team beat our 14U team three times,” said Crater head coach Chris Arnold, echoing White’s sentiment that it’s good to have Ashland back on the schedule. “They’re young but they’re hungry, so who knows?”
Heiken’s experience with that freshman crew dates back to their T-Ball days, with daughter Gabby Heiken, Shelby Brown and Tatum Pantle leading the charge. He has served as their head coach every step of the way, and was thrust into his high school role after Linnehan suffered a significant brain injury and stroke following a fall in a parking lot in January.
“Memory loss is a pretty big deal for me,” said Linnehan, “so with those day-to-day tasks and organizational things, Bobby has been super helpful. And I can’t be on the field so he’s kind of taken that role for me for this year while I work back into it. I hope to be back where I was by next year.”
Heiken said he’s just happy to be of assistance as Linnehan and the Ashland program try to get back in full form.
“So far it has worked well,” he said. “We both have our strengths and I think especially on her road to recovery, her being able to not worry about everything and sort of focus on hitting with a couple players or working with the catchers or different things like that, I think, is really healthy for her.”
And let’s not put the cart before the horse: There are plenty of things for the Grizzlies to be working on. Besides their youth, three of the team’s seven freshmen — Amelie Kirkland, Jessie Walls and Aisha Mesco — had never even played softball until this year.
Part of Saturday’s rewarding moments for coach Heiken was seeing Walls come off the bench and, after striking out in her first at-bat against Eagle Point, she put a ball in play and advanced a runner on base in her second at-bat.
“I don’t know if she understood exactly what she did,” laughed the coach, “but to see someone like that get up and move a runner over was great to see.”
Small victories like that are what Ashland will choose to focus on this season, not the scoreboard.
“I think that we just expect everyone to do their best,” said Adams. “You can’t ask for everyone to go out there and just kill it and be the best ever. Everyone just has to do their best, play the best they can be and that’s all we can expect.”
Given the rise in competition, that mentality seems to suit the Grizzlies just fine.
“We’re not going to go in all cocky or stuff,” added Adams, “we go into it thinking just work hard and see what comes out of it. If we get 10-runned or if we 10-run a team, as long as we’re out there, we’re doing it and we’re pushing ourselves ... we just work on the things we need to work on and move on.”
With every step forward Ashland makes this season, the hope is that those efforts will pay big dividends for future Grizzlies.
“When I graduate, someday I hope to come back and see that this program has really developed and everyone is just doing the best they can,” said Adams.