PREP NOTEBOOK: Ashland softball laments lost momentum
Championship hopes were out of the question.
Heck, even a winning season may have been a stretch for the Ashland softball program this spring.
The reality of sports, though, is that it is entirely possible to have a successful season even if you’re not piling up victories and walking away with championship banners.
When the Grizzlies lost out on the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic, they also lost a chance to build vital momentum for a program that fielded a varsity squad for the first time in three years last season.
“With the season disappearing,” Ashland head coach Bobby Heiken said Monday, “that really set us back a little bit in a year where we weren’t going to win a conference title or anything but we could’ve gained some valuable game experience and practice experience.”
The Grizzlies went 2-20 in 2016 before opting to only have a junior varsity program in the following two years.
Despite fielding only 13 players in last year’s return to varsity competition, Ashland posted an 8-14 record and scored Midwestern League victories over Churchill, North Eugene and Springfield.
For 2020, the Grizzlies simply aimed to springboard off last year and continue growth for what remains a one-tier program with no junior varsity squad.
“In 2019 we made big steps,” said Heiken, who also serves as associate athletic director at Southern Oregon University. “We’d started to get our feet under us, but we still have a long way to go.”
While preaching patience seems fitting for a program that last posted a winning season in 2015 by going 14-13 overall, that’s not entirely the way the Grizzlies were seeing it.
“We openly talk about this being our chance to turn this program around,” said Heiken, “so we try to take advantage every day and in everything we do to take the steps in the right direction. To all of a sudden be put on pause is disappointing for everyone in that boat.”
That’s why this spring was going to be so important, especially with so many fresh faces on board.
Of Ashland’s 18 players, there were only three seniors in Ruby Adams, Kallin Hakes and Ella Hart and the rest were sophomores and freshmen. Nine players overall returned from last year’s squad, with nine newcomers.
“The majority of those girls new to the program were new to the sport as well,” said Heiken, “so for us, we just needed to play. We just needed to practice, we just needed to be out on the field. I don’t care if that’s games or practices, we just needed to be able to throw the ball around, hit the ball and do softball-related activities so that these new girls, who are multi-sport athletes already, were able to play and learn the game of softball.”
Ashland was already going to have to learn how to play without the services of sophomore standout Gabby Heiken, the coach’s daughter, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament on Dec. 21 while trying to block a shot in basketball at Churchill and underwent surgery on Jan. 21.
Last year, Gabby Heiken earned second-team all-MWL honors at shortstop after posting a .469 batting average. She also recorded a 6-6 record with one save and a 3.68 ERA inside the circle.
“Not having Gabby was going to hurt,” said the coach, “but it also would have forced other girls to step up in her absence.”
Chief among those already expected to shoulder the load were Ashland’s senior trio.
Hart earned honorable mention all-conference honors last year after batting .477 while shoring up the defense at third base and first base. Bobby Heiken said the best was yet to come for the infielder, who has drawn increasing interest in college recruiting over the past few weeks.
“She’s going to go somewhere and play softball next year, she’s got a lot of colleges looking at her,” he said. “She’s an incredible hitter and incredible softball player, and she’s going to end her high school career playing one varsity year. That’s just a shame for someone like her.”
Hakes also was an honorable mention selection last year in her first season behind the plate at catcher, batting .397 to go with steady leadership qualities.
Adams batted .262 and committed only one error in 110 chances while splitting time at pitcher and first base. Inside the circle she went 2-8 in 19 games but, knowing Gabby Heiken would not be available this season, Adams locked in during offseason training and appeared primed to handle duties as the team’s ace pitcher.
“Kallin and Ruby have given everything to this program,” said coach Heiken. “They were stuck in JV for two years because there wasn’t a varsity team, and then they came back as juniors and performed really well. Getting them a chance to see what they were building and see the end result of that, that’s the disappointing part for those three seniors.”
With sophomore second baseman Shelby Brown, who hit .297 last year, also returning to the starting lineup, Ashland’s strength was bound to be in the infield.
Other returners included Faith Farrow, Jessie Walls, Tatum Pantle and Amelie Kirkland.
“We had some good talent coming in,” said coach Heiken, “we just needed to play together.”
Bobby Heiken was also extremely high on freshman Kirsten Morgan, who has played for him during ASA softball in the past and was going to lessen the blow of losing Gabby Heiken with her talents in the field and at the plate.
“Kirsten’s going to be one of the best players in our conference and in the state in a couple years,” said coach Heiken. “She’s an amazing athlete.”
Morgan had ramped up her training as a pitcher in recent months to complement Adams and strengthen that position moving forward for Ashland, where she’ll likely split duties at pitcher and shortstop with Gabby Heiken.
Even with some of those expected contributions, Bobby Heiken said he was most looking forward to seeing those new to the program blossom with more time on the softball diamond.
“The biggest key is the girls who were new were really enjoying playing,” he said. “They were showing up every day and they wanted more and more, and as a coach that’s what you want for people who are brand new to the sport.”
“That would’ve been huge for us to continue on with that,” added the coach, “and now we’ve got to hopefully be able to do that in the summer and in the fall. I can’t wait until we can open up again and get back to practicing and making those positive strides, whenever that may be.”