Next up: faceless Foxes

A good night's sleep? Not for Misty Potochnik. But the perpetual smile splashed across her face reveals that Ashland High's head softball coach is on cheap medication: Hope.

It's a word that has almost nothing to do with the Grizzlies' recent history. Ashland changed that this season by winning six of 12 Southern Sky Conference games and snaring the league's third and final state playoff berth, the program's first since 2001. Now comes the first do-or-die game of the season, or, put another way, the program's most important day since most of these Grizzlies were blowing bubbles down at Hunter Park.

Ashland (13-13) hosts Silverton (16-10) on Friday in a state sub-tournament game. The winner earns a road date with powerhouse Glencoe in the main 16-team bracket. The loser will exit stage left. And yes, the Grizzlies are a little antsy.

"Well, of course I feel pressure, it would be a lie to say I didn't," said Ashland sophomore pitcher Bella Pribyl, who enters the game with a 2.21 earned run average. "But, I think it'll be good pressure. I think it'll pump us up."

That's as good a prediction as any on the question of how the youthful Grizzlies will respond, and it comes from a player who approximately represents the team's median age. Remarkably, nine of the 12 players on Ashland's roster are underclassmen. That includes six sophomores, a class that may go down as one of the best in school history.

Many of those underclassmen play key roles. Leadoff hitter Sarah Silbowitz, a sophomore, has the best batting average on the team (.402), freshman right fielder Hayley Ross has the best slugging percentage (.500) to go with a team-high 10 RBIs and sophomore third baseman Amanda Good, a team captain, is batting .338 with eight RBIs. Then there's Pribyl, who paces the mound with the swagger someone who's used to winning. It doesn't hurt that she averages nine strikeouts per outing.

Thus, Potochnik expects more of these mid-May games in the near future, which should make Friday's contest, win or lose, a fantastic learning experience.

"I just see a long, steady line of really good players," Potochnik said. "We should be in the playoffs every year for the next three years and maybe longer. We've got sophomores and freshmen that will be here and they need to get used to playing at this level because I see them competing for years to come."

As for this week, the Grizzlies have been preparing for a faceless opponent.

Going into Wednesday's practice, the Grizzlies had no way of knowing how they match up with the Foxes, the No. 4 seed from the Mid-Willamette Conference. Silverton and Ashland have no like opponents to compare results against and the closest thing to a scouting report that the Grizzlies have coming is &

and this is only a possibility &

the opinion of a former Foxes coach, who may or may not have watched the team some time this season.

Silverton backed into the playoffs after battling Corvallis, West Albany and Crescent Valley for the league championship most of the year. The Foxes, coached by Ralph Cortez, lost their final five regular season games, a disappointing finish after a 12-2 Mid-Willamette start.

The visitors are led by junior pitcher Leah Cortez, senior center fielder Megan Delapp, junior infielder Jessica Reis and sophomore left fielder Halie Barth. All can hit, and did with power during the conference season.

The Grizzlies hope the home field advantage gives them a lift when they step onto the field at North Mountain Park for the team's first playoff game since a 5-4 loss to Putnam on May 22, 2001. The game represents Ashland's third playoff appearance in 27 years.

"I think we're going to have a lot of people out here supporting us and we need the support," said junior second baseman Samantha Gilbert, whose batting .389.

How far can the Grizzlies go?

"I don't want to put limits on it because you never know," Pribyl said. "One of my coaches always said, 'Any team can beat any other team on any given day.'"

Sports editor can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.

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