Pilots aim to climb back to top

The Ashland Pilots are looking for a new leadoff hitter, a new shortstop, a new ace, and are led by a new coach, but there's reason to be optimistic.

For instance, this season, unlike last, the Pilots know that the team they field in June will still be around come late July.

Last summer, Ashland's American Legion single-A baseball team rolled through another dominant Area 4 regular season and would have been favored to capture its third straight state title if not for an unfortunate scheduling road block: the Pacific Rim Bowl, which pits the Ashland High football team against a collection of Japan all-stars every two years, was set for July 26, in Japan. Consequently, several key players were halfway across the world as Ashland prepared to defend its state title, and the shorthanded Pilots quickly saw their three-peat bid go up in smoke.

This year no such conflict exists, and the Pilots appear anxious to prove that 2009 represented nothing more than an unlucky bump in the road.

"The ultimate goal is to win each game, and we definitely want to make it to regionals this year," said pitcher/infielder Billy Hansen. "I think we're going to have the pitching, and I think the hitting's going to come around, too. I feel like we have a good chance. We just have to stay together and have a good tournament when it comes around."

Ashland opens its 2010 season Monday afternoon with a doubleheader against Klamath Falls. Game 1 is set to begin at 3 p.m., at North Mountain Park, where the Pilots will play all their home games this season.

The Pilots will average about three doubleheaders per week until the state tournament begins July 29 in Eugene.

Ashland will be coached by Ashland High varsity softball coach Jeff Turner, who will also coach an ASA softball team. Former coach Josh Leedy stepped down to take a job in Medford.

Though the final roster has yet to be finalized, Turner expects the team to be loaded in the pitching department, at least in terms of depth. Brady Thomas figures to be the big gun. The hard-throwing right-hander just completed a stellar junior year for the Ashland High Grizzlies, during which he allowed just 12 earned runs in 551/3 innings for a sub-1.57 ERA, with 70 strikeouts and 13 walks.

Thomas throws a mean fastball that's been clocked in the mid-80s, and will take over the No. 1-starter spot that in years past has been occupied by such Ashland greats as Sam Gaviglio, Garrett Tygerson, Ian Kendall and Lucas Stone, who will play for the Medford Mustangs this year.

"All signs point to (Thomas) being a dominant pitcher this summer, if he continues what he was doing during school ball," Turner said.

After Thomas, Ashland's experience quotient takes a considerable nose dive, but the talent appears to be there. Ethan Schlecht, Max Anderson and Hansen are all expected to see plenty of action on the mound. They combined to throw just 22 innings during the high school season, but Schlecht's ERA of 1.00 in seven innings and Anderson's 3.00 in 14 offered positive signs.

Offensively, Turner said the Pilots may play more small ball than in year's past, since the roster seems to be devoid of any pure power hitters. Hansen was Ashland's second-best slugger during the high school season, batting .462 with a team-high .554 on-base percentage, seven doubles and two home runs. Schlecht also was a tough out, batting .373 with three home runs, including a key bomb in the state semifinals.

Brent Hegdahl (.329) will also bat near the top of the order.

"I definitely can see that we can swing the bat," Turner said.

Defensively, Turner was still putting the pieces together during Thursday's practice. The biggest hole in the infield is at shortstop, where the Pilots will have to find somebody to fill the void left by three-year starter Nick Hall, who's playing for the Mustangs. Hansen, who played first base during the high school season, is one option. Schlecht is another.

Hegdahl will likely stay at third and Schlecht, if he doesn't move to short, will play second. Behind the plate, varsity catcher Jake Scarminach is out indefinitely with a hand injury, which should create an opening for AJ Adams.

In the outfield, Lee Dodds and Wes Hitchko will give the Pilots plenty of speed.

Evan Westhelle-Grant, Taylor Humphrey and Ikaika Cecil will also see playing time this summer, as will the youngster of the group, Jamie Flynn, who will float between the Pilots and Ashland's D2 team.

"One thing that we were telling the boys before our practice (Thursday) is that with the amount of kids that graduated and where they're at, some kids are going to get moved around," Turner said. "There will definitely be some people moving to some different positions and seeing some looks that they may not have thought about playing before."

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