For a team that won 35 of 41 games during the regular season, there were an inordinate amount of questions surrounding the Ashland Pilots entering the American Legion A state tournament.
When Friday's 11-inning marathon concluded, many of those questions remained, but at least they were packaged with an opening-round win.
Kealii Cecil capped a monster afternoon with a towering home run that gave the shorthanded Pilots a 10-9 decision over Richardson, Sheldon High School's Legion A-likeness, in a game that lasted four more frames than necessary due to suspect Ashland defense.
Ashland faces LaGrande at 3 p.m. Saturday in the semifinals of the winner's bracket. LaGrande beat North Eugene 6-4 in another first-round game.
Ashland led 9-4 entering the bottom of the seventh inning when Brady Thomas replaced starting pitcher Hayden Miller on the mound. Four singles, three walks, two errors, two wild pitches and five unearned runs later the lead was gone and the win suddenly in jeopardy.
"That was, hands down, the worst defensive game we've had all year," said first-year Pilots manager Josh Leedy, whose team had committed one error in its previous four games but tallied five on Friday.
"We really shot ourselves in the foot," Leedy added, "but hopefully we'll just learn from it and flush it; we start fresh tomorrow."
Ashland was without six of its regular players, including every starting infielder but second-baseman Ethan Schlecht, as the Ashland High football team's expedition to Japan for the Pacific Rim Bowl reduced the team to a 12-man outfit for the five-day double-elimination tournament.
Still, the Pilots' lineup demonstrated more than enough pop to make a run at what would be their third straight state championship.
After Ashland produced three base-runners in the first four innings, Miller tied the game at 1-1 in the fifth with a single up the middle. With two on and two out, Schlecht's infield single gave Ashland a 2-1 edge.
Then, on three consecutive pitches, Cecil hit a two-run double to the left field wall, Thomas hit an RBI triple to the same spot, and Evan Westhelle lined one past the shortstop to push the lead to 6-1.
"We're a big two-out rally team," said Cecil, the designated hitter who helped the Pilots score nine two-out runs after accumulating 20 in the previous three games. "We're used to pressure, and when you play as many games as we have this summer those situations just aren't a big deal."
Richardson's Jared Corey doubled home a run in the bottom of the fifth, but Ashland got RBIs from Schlecht and Cecil in the top of the sixth to stretch the lead to 9-2.
Miller was replaced on the mound after the sixth inning when he surrendered two unearned runs including an RBI-single to Josh Andrews that made it 9-4. He struck out five and scattered 10 hits over six innings of work, allowing only one earned run and throwing 61 of his 87 pitches for strikes.
"He's been our most consistent guy, he's always around the zone and I knew he'd give us a chance to win," Leedy said of Miller, who helped his own cause by going 4-for-6 at the plate with a pair of doubles.
Miller's win was spoiled in the seventh when the tying run was walked in with two outs, but Thomas went four innings without allowing an earned run and Schlecht came on for the save in the 11th.
Cecil's game-winning shot, which traveled around 390 feet over the left-center field wall, was his sixth home run of the season and fifth hit of the day. He had four RBIs. Schlecht and Thomas also had two hits apiece.
"It's kind of demoralizing to be up by that much and have somebody come back on you," Leedy said. "I don't think it's even sunk in that we won yet, but hopefully by (Saturday) when we see ourselves in the winner's bracket there will be a few more smiles on our faces."
Ashland 000 063 000 01 — 10 17 6
Sheldon 001 012 500 00 — 9 14 2
Miller, Thomas (7), Schlecht (11) and Westhelle; Kaysa, Baker-Bass (6), Cunningham (8) and Corey. W — Thomas (1-0). L — Cunningham. 2B — A: Miller 2, Schlecht, Cecil 2; S: Corey. 3B — A: Hansen, Thomas. HR — A: Cecil (6).