New coach, same goals for Grizz

According to Paul Westhelle, the Ashland High baseball team will go about as far as its pitching and defense can carry it. Which, he's happy to report, should be pretty far.

"Well," he said, "I'm not making any plans for the first weekend of June."

It's a familiar theme in Ashland.

The Grizzlies may have a new coach, a rearranged infield and a slightly slimmed down batting lineup, but some things never change, which is a good thing for a team that's advanced to the Class 5A state quarterfinals five years in a row. A perfect example of this is Ashland's uncanny ability to seemingly re-spawn lively arms every spring capable of shutting down the most potent batting lineups in the state.

Looking to keep that tradition alive this year will be senior Ethan Schlecht, and juniors Jamie Flynn and Jack Carroll.

Schlecht and Flynn, both right-handers, boast fastballs in the low-to-mid-80s and have decent to good command of their secondary pitches. Carroll, a 6-foot-4 lefty, may be the wildcard. He can't match Ashland's aces in terms of sheer velocity, but he gets great movement and showed big-time potential as a junior varsity pitcher last spring.

Schlecht and Flynn will be expected to do most of the heavy lifting on the mound, but with the Southern Oregon Hybrid going back to single games on Tuesday's and doubleheaders on Saturdays, they'll need plenty of help from the likes of Carroll, Steen Fredrickson and Eric Carlson.

"(The rotation) will evolve as the season goes, but we're really conscious of pitch counts," Westhelle said.

The infield behind those pitchers is athletic and versatile, a necessary trait considering that both Flynn and Schlecht will be expected to log time at third base and first base, respectively.

Senior slugger Billy Hansen, who played first last season, moves to short and senior Evan Westhelle returns to second, but will also catch when sophomore Carter Glick needs a breather.

Though some of the combinations will be new at the varsity level, Hansen, Flynn, Schlecht and Evan Westhelle were kicking infield dirt together even before helping Ashland capture the District 6 Little League title six years ago and Paul Westhelle believes the potential, thanks in part to that built-in chemistry, is huge.

"We've had a lot of time out on our field and they're playing very well as a unit," he said. "I think this is going to be among the best Ashland teams, from a defensive standpoint, and that's saying something."

In the outfield, Ashland brings back one of its most dynamic playmakers in senior center fielder Taylor Humphrey, who will highlight a group that includes left fielder Cory Milgram and right fielder Ryan Bottimore.

Humphrey has tremendous speed, a trait he also takes advantage of on the basepaths as Ashland's leadoff hitter, as does Milgram, while Bottimore was good enough during preseason practices to win the last starting spot.

After last year's solid performance for the Ashland Pilots, Ashland's American Legion A summer-league team, Humphrey and Milgram are known commodities. Bottimore, on the other hand, could be an X-factor.

So far, Westhelle feels good about his most inexperienced outfielder.

"I think we're good out there," he said. "(Bottimore) is learning the position well and I've been really impressed with what I've seen so far. He's clearly growing into the position."

Offensively, Ashland returns two of its two three hitters from a year ago in Hansen and Schlecht. They'll bat third and fourth, respectively, in an order that features plenty of line-drive, gap hitters, but not much in the way of pure power.

Then again, with Oregon entering the first year of the BBCOR certified bats-only era, home runs numbers will likely plummet across the state. The BBCOR certified bats have significantly less pop than the bats that were allowed last year — a 15 percent drop in ball speed, according to Westhelle — which may spawn a return by some teams to small-ball tactics.

At the very least, Westhelle explains, offensive fundamentals will be more important than ever, which he believes will work in Ashland's favor.

"We hope to be a complete offensive team," he said, "and in Ashland, we have always played the game with offensive fundamentals at the core of our practices."

Indeed, Ashland begins every batting practice with a bunting round and a rule that provides a little extra motivation: if you don't get your bunts down, you don't swing the bat.

"(Hansen) is like, 'Gosh coach, that's worse than running,'" Westhelle said.

Coming off its fifth straight quarterfinal appearance — a run that includes four semifinal runs, two state championship game appearances and the 2008 state title — Ashland will try to continue a streak that ranks among the most impressive in the state at any classification.

That quest has already begun. This season, each team's matchup in the 32-team 5A play-in round will be determined exclusively by the OSAA's power rankings, placing even more emphasis on the regular season. That means Ashland — 1-0 after last week's 4-3 season-opening win over Henley — can earn more favorable matchups in May by beating teams in March and April.

Not that Westhelle is thinking that far ahead. Like his predecessor, Don Senestraro, Westhelle prefers to take a one-game-at-a-time approach. Regardless who they're playing, Westhelle says, the Grizzlies are going to have to execute pitches, execute on defense and execute on offense.

"If we do all those things correct," he said, "the wins will take care of themselves."

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