Building for the future

It's 4:45 p.m. and Jeff Turner is late for an interview that was supposed to take place before Ashland's 16U softball team began warming up for a 6 p.m. game against South Medford.

Then again, when you've donated most of your summer to coaching both baseball and softball, and have at least one game — and sometimes two - pretty much every day of the week, in a way you're never late for today's appointment at the diamond, just very, very early for tomorrow's.

Such is the current state of being for the affable Turner: all baseball/softball, all the time, with little room for anything else. Not that he's complaining.

Making his way toward the Ashland dugout Tuesday, a bag of softball equipment draped over one shoulder and a notebook of some sort under the other, Turner described the challenges of taking on two teams simultaneously — the softball team, and the Pilots, Ashland's American Legion A baseball squad.

"I had to put together a schedule of both of them on the same calendar so I could remember where I was going every day," Turner said. "Once I did that it was fine. I just wake up and look at my calendar and go, 'OK, I'm doing softball today.'"

During the high school season Turner is the Ashland High varsity softball coach, and his effort to start up a 16U program here is part of a larger plan aimed at getting the Grizzlies back to the state playoffs. Hired prior to the 2010 season, Turner has a baseball background and is still learning the nuances of softball, but already he's found that the two sports share at least one common thread: the more experience players rack up during the summer, the better off they'll be come spring.

That lesson was driven home during his first season in Ashland. The Grizzlies, as inconsistent as they were inexperienced, lost 19 of their last 20 games, including all 12 of their Southern Sky Conference tilts. Now, Turner is doing all that he can to make sure next year's varsity team is better prepared for the challenge of 5A varsity softball.

Progress, he said, is coming slowly - Ashland is 0-8 after Tuesday's 10-1 loss to South Medford - but it is coming.

"We're playing some tough competition," Turner said. "We're not getting wins, but to be able to play teams like that and to not get 10-runned and to play full games and to be competitive is a good thing for the girls to see."

There are 14 girls on the team, which wraps up its season with a state tournament July 9-11 in Hillsboro. Ashland is scheduled to play a minimum of 14 games during the regular season, and can earn more if it picks up a few tournament victories along the way.

Even if that doesn't happen, the players seem confident that Turner has the program headed in the right direction.

"It's been beneficial so far, and the young girls get to improve more and have more time at a varsity level," said catcher/infielder Kaylin McAnany, who's entering her senior year at AHS. I think things will start turning around because Jeff has a lot of really good ideas and I think his first year was just trying to get all those ideas started, and now that he's started them it'll be easier to improve and get better."

Teammate Lizzy Scott, a senior utility player, agreed, adding that there's no better time and place to try what you've been practicing than game day, on a diamond

"It's all about getting game experience and getting game time and being able to actually play and have the situations in a game, rather than just going through the motions in practice," she said.

It also helps if your current teammates will also be your future teammates, something that Turner's program, with a few notable exceptions, ensures (Nicole Lehman and Rose Marston, two standouts who will play key roles for the Grizzlies in 2011, are playing for a Medford-based team this summer in an effort to see stiffer competition, though Lehman is currently recovering from an injury). Indeed, the players that make up Ashland's 16U team will play alongside each other again next spring, when the Grizzlies will play in a newly-formed hybrid league consisting of both 5A and 6A schools.

That's important, Turner says, because it allows the team to build chemistry that it can take into next year.

And speaking of building for the future, Turner is also trying to do that on the pitcher's mound, a place that may hold the key to the program's immediate turnaround hopes. During the high school season the Grizzlies surrendered 236 runs in 25 games, an average of 9.4 runs per game. Those numbers were inflated by some less-than-stellar defense, but in general Ashland's pitching staff struggled to get outs.

That could change in '11 if Savannah Williams, an incoming junior, continues to show improvement. The tall, athletic righty took her lumps as a sophomore, but is working hard to provide the Grizzlies with something that every competitive softball team must have: a bulldog on the hill.

"She's getting better and better each day out," Turner said of Williams. "She's working a lot more pitches, working on spotting better inside and outside, and she's becoming a much more effective pitcher. She's still working on some control issues, and on her defense, but there's a huge upside to her and it's must a matter of getting her out and pitching an entire summer."

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