Ashland runs out of comebacks

KEIZER — North Eugene coach Corey Nicholsen admits it. As he waited for the bottom of the seventh inning to begin the nightmare finish from 2008 flashed through his mind.

Two years ago the Highlanders led Ashland by two runs with two outs in the seventh inning of a 5A state quarterfinal game when Grizz pitcher Sam Gaviglio hit a now legendary blast to give the Grizzlies a miracle win.

"I'd lie if I said it didn't," Nicholsen said. "But I tried to put it out of my mind."

It's out.

Sophomore ace Andrew Moore pitched a complete-game shutout and the Highlanders took advantage of four Ashland errors, including two in the decisive sixth inning, to beat the Grizzlies 3-0 and claim the 5A state championship Saturday at Volcanoes Stadium.

Moore held No. 3 Ashland to three hits and won a pitcher's duel with Ashland ace Ian Kendall, who struck out 12 batters and walked four before leaving with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth.

The state title was a first for the Highlanders (22-9), who finished third in the Midwestern League before catching fire in the postseason, outscoring its five playoff opponents 36-5.

"We got hot right at the right time," Moore said.

Moore and Kendall battled to a 0-0 draw through five innings, but Kendall worked harder for his goose egg. He entered the sixth having already thrown 98 pitches, then gave up a leadoff single to Kyle DeHaven. After striking out the next batter, Kendall walked Johny Lari.

In the Ashland dugout, head coach Don Senestraro considered replacing Kendall with Brady Thomas, but decided against it. Kendall was still throwing in the low 90's, and told Senestraro that he was fine during a timeout in the fifth.

"I kind of let (Kendall) do his deal there," Senestraro said. "You think about it, but he's the only one who really knows if he can get it done, and if I had to do it again I'd do the same thing."

The move looked sound after the next batter, Erik Long, hit a routine ground ball to first baseman Billy Hansen, but then disaster struck for Ashland (24-6). Hansen threw to second to start a would-be double play, but the field umpire ruled that shortstop Nick Hall didn't touch second base. Long was safe at first, too, loading the bases for leadoff hitter Ryan DeLaney.

Kendall used a pair of clutch strikeouts to escape two previous bases-loaded jams, but this time the Highlanders cashed in. DeLaney punched Kendall's 1-0 offering, his 119th pitch of the game, through the hole between third and short to give North Eugene a 1-0 lead.

"We work on that in practice every day — infield in, bases loaded," DeLaney said, "so I just had to think about that the whole time, think of it like BP."

That was it for Kendall, who allowed one earned run on three hits before giving way to Thomas.

"Right when (DeHaven) got that hit through the hole (to leadoff the inning), I knew that I was done," Kendall said. "I had thrown a lot of pitches and I had complete confidence in Brady for him to come in and do a great job, and he did a great job. They just got a few hits at timely times."

Thomas coaxed a 5-2 fielder's choice out of Luke Ferrenburg and got within a strike, at full count, of getting out of the inning down by just one run before Moore hit a slow chopper to third that Brent Hegdahl threw into right field. Ashland's Lucas Stone, backing up the play, threw out Ferrenburg at home, but two insurance runs had already scored, which turned out to be plenty for Moore.

Considering the history, Ashland may have put a scare into the North Eugene faithful when Hall singled with one out in the sixth and Luke Baldrica singled to leadoff the seventh, but both mini-rallies were squashed by the savvy, composed Moore, who never allowed an Ashland base-runner beyond second base.

"(Kendall's) a great pitcher, so I knew that it would be a low scoring game and I had to come in and just had to throw strikes," Moore said. "He was getting tired a little bit and we knew we had to get him right there (in the sixth) and get him out of the game. We wanted to come up with a big hit and get (Kendall) out earlier, but we knew we'd get more chances to drive someone in."

Moore struck out Kendall with a runner at second to end the sixth, and started a 1-6-3 double play in the seventh to get the Highlanders within an out of the championship. Ethan Schlecht flied out to end the game, and Moore leaped into the arms of his catcher, DeHaven, right before the two were swallowed by a pile-up celebration.

"I can't even put it into words right now," Moore said. "It's just so cool."

Kendall retired the first seven batters he faced, five on strikeouts, before running into his first bit of trouble in the third. With two outs and a runner on first, DeLaney's ground ball to second was bobbled by Schlecht. A wild pitch put runners at second and third for Ferrenburg, who worked the count full before getting frozen by a called third-strike curve ball.

The Highlanders threatened again in the fourth when a third-strike passed ball cost Kendall a 1-2-3 inning. The next two batters reached on hit by pitch and a walk to load the bases for Lari, who struck out looking on Kendall's 73rd pitch of the game.

Later, Senestraro said the passed ball was key.

"That cost us another 25 pitches, that's another inning with Ian," he said. "Every time you make an error it taxes the pitcher because it means he's got to throw more pitches, and we knew we had limited pitches with Ian.

"We're not used to making more errors than hits."

Kendall survived another bases-loaded jam in the fifth by striking out Mills with another nasty curveball.

The Grizzlies were going for their second state title in three years after losing in the '09 semifinals. Ashland, the Southern Sky Conference champion, had eliminated North Eugene from the playoffs the previous two years.

Ashland will probably have enough coming back to make another postseason run. Hall is the only infielder who will graduate off the team.

For Hall and Kendall, the postgame atmosphere Saturday was much different than their previous visit to Volcanoes Stadium, when Ashland defeated Thurston with Hall and Kendall in the starting lineup. That Grizzly team overcame an early deficit to beat the Colts, something these Grizzlies did in both the quarterfinals and semifinals.

Against North Eugene, Ashland finally ran out of comebacks.

"I think what hurts the most is that I'm not going to play with these guys ever again," said Hall, fighting back tears. "I've just made so many great friendships and all these guys are like a family to me. It hurts to lose, but it hurts more to move on. This is kind of the end of a chapter."

"I know they battled as hard as they could," Senestraro said. "I knew they gave me everything they had, and we just didn't have enough to win our last game. (The Highlanders) are a great team, they got hot, made the plays and had a great pitcher and usually that's a recipe for disaster."

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