During a four-year period starting in 2007 Ashland High climbed to the top of the Class 5A baseball mountain, advancing to the semifinals four years in a row, pushing through to the final twice and claiming the 2008 state title.
But the run ended with a quarterfinal setback in 2011, and the Grizzlies fell in the quarterfinals again last season, begging the question: Is the Ashland baseball factory finally slowing down production?
Enter new head coach and former College World Series champion John Wallace, whose emphatic answer leaves no room for doubt.
"A lot of these guys were on the team last year and saw how close we were to advancing to the state semifinals," said Wallace, whose team plays its home opener Saturday against Dallas. "And with the pitching that we have coming back — Jamie (Flynn) and Jack (Carroll) were the guys that carried us last year in the playoffs — we're setting our goals high. We think we can make a run at a state championship. That's our ultimate goal."
Indeed, Flynn, a senior right-hander, and Carroll, a senior lefty, should give the Grizzlies one of the most potent one-two pitching combinations in the state and a leg up over most of the competition come playoff time. And with sophomore sensation Steen Fredrickson waiting in the wings, slotted as the No. 3 starter, Ashland is once again loaded at the most important position in the field.
Flynn is the clear ace. His fastball consistently hits 85 mph, and he's developed nasty curve which he's comfortable throwing whether ahead in the count or behind.
Flynn offered a brief glimpse of his potential during a 15-pitch outing in Ashland's season-opening loss at Henley on Wednesday. He retired the last two batters he faced, one on strikes, but not before plunking a batter and allowing a hit.
"The command, obviously you've got to work on that all year," said Flynn, who has received some interest from Division I colleges such as Oregon State, Wallace's alma matter. "It's not midseason, so everything's gotta be better, but I felt like it was solid."
Wallace expects big things out of Flynn, who was 8-2 last season after a spectacular late-season surge that included five consecutive complete-game efforts, including two in the postseason.
"He's worked hard all offseason," Wallace said of Flynn. "He's gotten bigger, stronger, he's got more control of his pitches, so we're looking for him to be an ace and a shutdown pitcher."
Supporting Flynn, or whomever is on the mound, will be a defense that's green, but gifted. That's especially the case in the middle infield, where the Grizzlies have a freshman, Aaron Scott, starting at shortstop for the first time in more than a decade, and a sophomore, Fredrickson, sharing time at second base with senior Ian Alpenia.
Wallace feels good about Ashland's defense at the corners — junior Eric Carlson at first, and Flynn, when he's not pitching, at third — and also has been impressed with second-year starter Carter Glick, a junior, behind the plate, but says the middle infield and outfield will be an X-factor of sorts for the Grizzlies.
Which is why no final decisions have been made.
"I'm still figuring it out pretty much everywhere," Wallace said. "Even in the infield, we have guys who can play multiple positions, so right now that was our initial lineup (at Henley), but I would say nothing's really been set in stone. We're young, especially in the middle, which is tough."
Wallace said that some of those defensive positions may end up being decided at the plate, where the Grizzlies fared well overall Tuesday — they scored five runs on 11 hits — but suffered a slight drop-off near the bottom of the order.
Bryce Rogan, a junior lefty, takes over for Taylor Humphrey in the leadoff spot and looked up to the task Tuesday, when he went 2-for-3 with a double, a walk and two runs scored. Glick, Carlson and Bottimore, who nailed a triple, follow.
Since team speed is not a strength, small ball is not likely to be a big part of the Grizzlies' game plan this season.
"We're definitely going to have to hit guys around," Wallace said. "We have some guys that can play a little small ball with the bunt game and do a few things hit and run, but as far as stealing and getting guys around that way it's not going to happen. We're going to have to find gaps and hit guys around, definitely."
As for that bottom-of-the-lineup conundrum, Wallace indicated that spots are still "up for grabs" and will be determined by in-game performance. The good news is, the Grizzlies have plenty of time to find the right combination. That's because the first of four games between Ashland and Southern Oregon Hybrid 5A rival Eagle Point isn't until April 11. In Ashland's list of goals, winning the season series against Eagle Point is at the top of the list for the Grizzlies, since that guarantees Ashland no worse than a play-in game. The next goal is to finish in the top eight in the final 5A power rankings and receive an automatic berth in the 16-team state tournament.
"We're a younger squad than last year, losing those key seniors," Flynn said, "but the potential's definitely there. Once we start working as a team and learn how to win as a team together, I think that we'll be a force, for sure."