AHS baseball: The staff of legend

Ian Kendall was doing his best to answer a television reporter's question Wednesday at North Mountain Park when Ashland High head baseball coach Don Senestraro suddenly leaped into the shot and delivered a sneak-attack head rub.

Kendall recovered, completed the interview and only minutes later was stretching with the rest of his teammates, proving once again that when it comes to pitching, the third-ranked Grizzlies are not easily fazed — not by base-runners, not by Major League scouts and not even by their deceptively quick coach.

This should come as no surprise to those who have been following the Grizzlies over the last four years. Ashland has made three straight appearances in the Class 5A state semifinals and will try to make it four in a row Friday at Thurston, thanks mostly to a pitching staff that's consistently ranked among the state's best.

This year's group is no exception.

Heading into Tuesday's playoff opener, a 3-0 Ashland win over Bend, the numbers were enough to make a leadoff batter run for cover. Team ERA: 1.68. Strikeouts per game: 9.16. Hits allowed per game: 4.9. Strikes-to-balls ratio: 1.71-to-1.

The Grizzlies' big three — Kendall, Lucas Stone and Brady Thomas — were so dominant during the regular season, in fact, that one couldn't help but doubt the quality of the batting lineups in the Southern Sky Conference. But that theory may have been debunked during the first two rounds of the playoffs, during which Ashland's fellow SSC state qualifiers, Crater and Klamath Union, went 3-0 and scored a combined 21 runs.

"I'm not surprised at all," Senestraro said. "Every time I see college coaches, I always tell them, 'You know, we play pretty good ball down here in the south.' It seems like we don't get very many guys down here playing college ball, which I think we should."

Ashland, meanwhile, continued to rack up zeroes. Kendall (six innings) and Stone (one) pitched a tag-team no-hitter against Bend, which averaged 10.4 runs per game and was coming off a 16-10 first-round thrashing of Liberty.

Ashland's recent history is filled with similar postseason conquests, usually centered around dominant pitching performances. In 2008, it was ace Sam Gaviglio who led the Grizzlies to their first and only state championship — later, he proved he was no one-season wonder by becoming the staff ace at national powerhouse Oregon State. Last season, Garrett Tygerson emerged as one of the best hurlers in the state while leading Ashland back to the final four. This year, Kendall is putting together a season that rivals even Gaviglio's great '08 campaign. Counting Tuesday's shutout, Kendall (8-2) has allowed two earned runs in 51 innings for a 0.27 ERA. He has 83 strikeouts, an average of 1.6 per inning (Gaviglio's ERA in '08 was slightly higher, 0.53, but he finished the season 12-0 and walked just 13 batters while striking out 101).

Kendall's been so impressive, Major League scouts are coming to Ashland in droves, witnessing in person a flaming fastball that's been clocked at 95 mph. Thirteen were on hand to watch Kendall blow away Eagle Point on May 13, so many that the school had to cordon off a section for the radar-toting talent evaluators behind home plate.

Kendall, who has already committed to Oregon State but could decide to go pro instead after the June 7 draft, said he's doing everything he can to avoid getting distracted by the attention.

"My main goal is to win a state championship," he said, "so I try and put everybody else aside and block them out. It's hard not to (notice the scouts) when they're right behind home plate gunning me and stuff. It's just something that I really need to work on to stay focused on the game, and to not over throw."

Having at least one shut-down pitcher is essential for a deep playoff run, but depth is often the difference between the contenders and the pretenders. Here, the Grizzlies once again may have a key advantage over most of their 5A competition because the dropoff after Kendall is miniscule. Stone (7-1) has given up nine earned runs in 48 1/3 innings for a 1.28 ERA , and Thomas (6-1) has allowed 12 earned runs in 51 1/3 innings for a 1.64 ERA.

Such pitching depth seems unfair, and begs the question: how does a program the size of Ashland, a relatively small 5A school, continue to pump out ace after ace after ace?

Ask the pitchers, and they'll give much of the credit to Ashland's secret weapon, pitching coach Chuck Thacker, who's worked with all of the aforementioned Grizz greats, most since their Little League days.

Stone said hard work is also a big part of it. And good genes.

"I know that during the offseason, all the pitchers starting down in Little League put in a tremendous amount of effort," Stone said. "Chuck Thacker has been huge in that, he's been setting up a pitching clinic every winter, getting us throwing early to make sure that our arms aren't breaking down, fine-tuning our mechanics. He's been huge in helping us find our own little niche and where we're most effective.

"And also, we've been very lucky to have some great arms come through. You can't look at (Kendall) and say that's all coaching. There's definitely a lot of talent there."

Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x224 or by e-mail at jzavala@dailytidings.com

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