Next for Grizzlies, a program that seeks a return to former glory

Three years after claiming Ashland High's first baseball state championship the Grizzlies look poised to grab another. That would further cement Ashland's status as a perennial contender, a model program and maybe a dynasty in the making.

In other words the Grizzlies, who have qualified for the state semifinals four years in a row, may soon blast off into rarefied air that only a handful of Oregon high school programs have touched.

And it just so happens that one of those programs is in town today with a chance to intercept Ashland before it threatens to join that elite fraternity.

The Dalles Wahtonka was simply The Dalles when it embarked on a decade of dominance at the Class 3A level, capturing six state titles in a 10-year span that began in 1993. The Eagle Indians have fallen back to earth since then, but can put their stamp on this year's postseason by pulling off what would be considered a major upset in the first round of the Class 5A state tournament today at North Mountain Park. The first pitch between top-seeded Ashland (24-1) and eighth-seeded The Dalles Wahtonka (5-15) is scheduled to be thrown at 4:30 p.m., weather permitting (rain is expected).

Led by longtime head coach Steve Sugg, The Dalles dominated 3A baseball throughout the 90s and into the next decade, advancing to seven championship games and winning all but one by a combined score of 49-13 (the one loss was to Phoenix in '98). The Indians — they didn't become the Eagle Indians until merging with Wahtonka in 2005 — did it with pitching and defense, two ingredients, says Sugg, that all championship teams have in common.

"You don't necessarily need an ace," he said. "But if they can throw strikes and keep the ball down, pitching and defense is going to win you more games than offense. If you look at (the next levels), the teams that win the World Series and the College World Series, that's a constant. Especially in high school."

And especially during Sugg's run. In five of The Dalles' six championship game victories the Indians held their opponents to three runs or less, including two shutouts and a 5-1 win.

"It's hard to hit a ball," said Sugg, who stepped down in '05 but will be in Ashland today to watch his son, Justin, The Dalles Wahtonka's starting second baseman. "I don't care how good a hitter you are, you are always going to run up against somebody who stops the hits from falling. You can always manufacture runs — bunting, putting pressure on the opposing defense — but the one constant is pitching."

That's the formula that Ashland has used in its current five-year rise. The Grizzlies rode 5A pitcher of the year Sam Gaviglio, now the ace at Oregon State, to the state title in '08, and nearly won it all again last season behind hard-throwing righty Ian Kendall, losing in the championship game to North Eugene.

This year, however, Ashland appears to have a championship-caliber batting lineup as well. Three of the top four batters in the Grizzlies' lineup — Billy Hansen, Brent Hegdahl and Ethan Schlecht — are hitting .500 or better, and there isn't much drop off after that.

Meanwhile, Ashland's current ace, senior righty Brady Thomas, with his 8-0 record and 1.38 regular season ERA, has proven to be a worthy heir apparent.

The Dalles Wahtonka will attempt to pull off the shocker with a lineup that's better than its record indicates. That's because the Eagle Indians forfeited 10 games, including six wins, after self-reporting a eligibility violation — a player was caught altering his transcripts to avoid missing games.

The Eagle Indians already have one upset win under their belts, a 2-1 play-in win over PIL champion Wilson. The game featured a combined no-hitter by Andrew Olsen, a 6-foot-5 lefty, and Kenny Harris.

Senior catcher Hunter Woods, one of TDW's top hitters, also came up big last week, throwing out three base runners.

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