CENTRAL POINT — Now that one back-to-back title is out of the way, the Grizzlies can start focusing on the other — the big one.
The No. 2-ranked Ashland High baseball team clinched its second straight Southern Sky Conference championship outright Thursday, pummeling Crater 14-3 in five innings in an error-plagued game at Anhorn Field.
The win, Ashland's 15th in a row, secures the league's No. 1 seed to the Class 5A state tournament for the defending state champions, who begin their quest for a second straight Class 5A title May 26 at home.
"They're happy, but they know they didn't play very well today," Ashland head coach Don Senestraro said of his team. "Every time we play, we prepare for a playoff game and we can't play like that in a playoff game against a good team with a good pitcher, and we know that."
Ashland first baseman Lucas Stone agreed.
"Whenever you can come back and repeat as a champion it's a great feeling, but we didn't play our 'A' game," he said. "Yes, the score was 14-3, but we really need to pick it up."
So do the Comets.
Ashland took advantage of six Crater errors, including five in a disastrous fifth inning for the home team, to carve out a comfortable, albeit ugly, mercy rule-shortened victory.
Charlie Sebrell was 2-for-3 with two RBIs and picked up the win on the mound, and Stone was 2-for-4 with three RBIs as the Grizzlies (18-3, 12-1 SSC) sent 14 batters to the plate in a nine-run fifth.
The victory avenged Ashland's league-opening setback on the same field April 3 and gives the Grizzlies an opportunity to relax a little before their playoff opener.
Sebrell said that's not going to happen.
"Coach [Senestraro] is preaching that we need to just keep getting better and we can't be content with a conference championship," he said. "Everybody's on board and coach is doing a good job keeping our heads straight and keeping us in the present but also looking toward the future."
Added Senestaro: "We're going to play like every game's a playoff game."
The fourth and final regular season meeting between the league rivals — Ashland won the season series 3-1 — was competitive until the fifth, when nine of Ashland first 10 batters reached base, often with the help of Crater defensive miscues. There were hits, too, including Charlie Sebrell's two-run double to deep left field and Garrett Tygerson's two-run single to left.
When Crater (11-10, 6-5) finally made enough routine plays to stop the bleeding, the damage was already done. Ashland entered the bottom of the inning with a comfortable 14-2 lead.
"We've had some games like this where we just don't make plays and boot the ball around," Crater coach Jay Campbell said. "You can't give a good team like that extra outs."
Ashland jumped on top early, scoring three runs on two hits and an error in the first inning, including an RBI double by Lewis Sebrell.
The Grizzlies led 4-0 heading into the bottom of the third, when Crater put together its only rally of the game — a two-run burst highlighted by Craig Kathol's RBI single.
Kathol was 2-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored to lead Crater, which managed seven hits against the Grizzlies' three-headed pitching monster of Charlie Sebrell, Tygerson and Ian Kendall.
Crater starter Haden Bighouse surrendered four runs on three hits in three innings and was tagged with the loss. The Comets' relievers, Justen Morgan and Zach Zelecki, allowed 10 more runs, but only five of those were earned.
The bottom of Ashland's lineup came up big for the Grizzlies — Luke Baldrica (2-for-3), Stone and Hayden Miller (2-for-2), Ashland's Nos. 6, 7 and 9 batters, respectively, combined for six hits, five RBIs and five runs.
Miller also played a key role on defense. Moving from his usual spot at second base to third for the injured Brent Hegdahl, Miller was flawless in what turned out to be a busy day in the far corner. He had six assists without an error, including three nice plays in the first inning that helped set the tone.
"It's my favorite position," he said.
The rest of the Grizzlies weren't perfect, however. Ashland committed three errors, including two in the third that momentarily allowed the Comets to move within striking distance.
Nursing a 4-2 lead, Ashland narrowly avoided the tie when Charlie Sebrell coaxed a harmless pop fly to center by Bruce Sanford with runners on second and third and two out.
Tygerson took over for Sebrell in the fourth and also worked his way out of a two-on, two-out jam, and Kendall gave up a run on three hits in the fifth.
The Grizzlies barely celebrated after the final out, briefly exchanging high fives before trotting off into right field for their usual postgame meeting.
"Hopefully we'll give coach a Gatorade shower because he's done a great job," Sebrell said, "but we're going to wait on that and we're just going to keep being the hardest-working team in the state."
Ashland 301 19 — 14 10 3
Crater 002 01 — 3 7 6
C. Sebrell, Tygerson (4), Kendall (5) and L. Sebrell; Bighouse, Morgan (4), Zelecki (5) and Fahndrich. W — C. Sebrell. L — Bighouse. 2B — A: C. Sebrell, L. Sebrell. SB — A: Tygerson 2, Miller.