Grizz arms on the ready

Ian Kendall says he can go.

His coach says probably not.

Lucas Stone isn't sure what to expect.

So let the speculation begin. Who will start on the mound for the Ashland High baseball team when it faces off against North Eugene on Saturday in the Class 5A state championship game?

Who knows? Well, one man, Ashland head coach Don Senestraro, probably has a pretty good idea, but he wasn't in a sharing mood prior to Thursday's practice at North Mountain Park, which leaves everybody else — like North Eugene's coaching staff, for example — exactly where Senestraro likes them: in the dark.

"We're going to play this like the seventh game of the World Series," Senestraro said, "and everybody needs to be ready to go at all times."

That means Grizzly fans will likely have to wait until Saturday afternoon to find out. The game, the second of a championship tripleheader, is scheduled to start at 1:30 p.m. at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer. Third-ranked Ashland (24-5) will be going for its second state title in three years after winning it all in 2008, while North Eugene (21-9) will be making its first-ever championship game appearance.

Kendall is coming off his first complete-game of the season, Tuesday's 5-4 semifinal victory over Madras. Typically with just three days of rest between games Kendall would defer to either Stone or Brady Thomas. But the state championship game is anything but typical; it's not even a typical playoff situation, since there's no need to worry about who takes the mound in the next round.

For that reason, Kendall says he wants the ball.

"I'm definitely planning on starting and hopefully going all seven (innings)," said Kendall, who has committed to Oregon State but may also decide to go pro if he's picked high in Monday's Major League Baseball draft. "I'm going to be running on a lot of adrenaline, but I feel like I kind of need to do this to step up and really show what I can do. "… It's my last game in high school and I kind of just want to go out with a bang."

Senestraro likes the idea of starting arguably the most dominant pitcher in the state — Kendall throws 95 mph and averaged 12 strikeouts per game during the regular season — but is also weary of the health risks, given the limited rest.

"I know this is a really big game for Ashland High School, but I will never jeopardize one of my pitchers' arms, and especially his," Senestraro said. "Some day I think he's really going to be a special player far beyond high school, so I'm never going to jeopardize his health. We'll make that decision later on."

If Kendall doesn't get the start, Stone or Thomas will. Both throw in the mid-80s and would be the staff ace on just about any other program in the state. Stone carried a 1.30 ERA with eight strikeouts per game during the regular season, while Thomas had a 1.64 ERA with 9.27 strikeouts per game.

North Eugene's decision figures to be far less complicated. No. 1 starter Andrew Moore, a sophomore, dominated Klamath Union in the quarterfinals on May 28 — two runs allowed, 14 strikeouts — and hasn't thrown a pitch in a game since.

According to Senestraro, Moore's fastball is in the mid-to-upper-80s and he most likely also possesses a wide range of junk pitches.

No matter who pitches for either team, runs will likely be hard to come by. The game features the two stingiest squads in the state when it comes to runs allowed, with North Eugene (74) leading the way and Ashland coming in a close second (87).

As far as scoring is concerned, North Eugene, the No. 3 seed out of the Midwestern Conference, is on a postseason tear. The Highlanders have throttled their four playoff opponents — The Dalles-Wahtonka, top-ranked Corvallis, Klamath Union and West Albany — by a combined score of 33-5.

Ashland, meanwhile, has had to scratch and claw its way through the top half of the bracket, storming back from a 7-1 deficit to defeat Thurston 8-7 in the quarters, then digging out of a 2-0 hole, and surviving a late rally, to edge Madras 5-4 in the semis.

In a juicy twist, the game represents the third straight postseason meeting between the two clubs, with Ashland ending North Eugene's season in the quarterfinals in both 2008 (on Sam Gaviglio's seventh-inning home run) and 2009.

Do those previous playoff knockouts, both of which were delivered on North Eugene's home field, give the Grizzlies a mental edge? Stone, who hit a grand slam that helped Ashland stun Thurston, doesn't think so.

"Different year, different teams," he said. "What we took away from the last few years when we beat them is that they're very well coached, they always perform, they'll play defense. They'll give you a good game and they'll fight as hard as they can."

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