Senestraro's dedication paid off for Grizz

Technically, Don Senestraro the Little League/Babe Ruth dad became Don Senestraro the varsity baseball coach in the spring of 2005. But the real the transformation probably occurred several months later in Ashland High athletic director Karl Kemper's office.

Senestraro had only agreed to be a stop gap, the emergency replacement, while the school continued to search for the long-term answer following Jason Robustelli's resignation. But when that fill-in season was over, Senestraro requested a meeting with Kemper. And by then, for the uber-competitive Senestraro one season at the helm was not nearly enough.

"I know I can turn this program into a winner," Senestraro told Kemper. "Just give me a chance."

Senestraro got that chance and made good on his promise, big time. Now, seven seasons, four league titles and one state championship later, he's decided to pass the lineup card and his spot in the third-base coach's box on to somebody else (Paul Westhelle).

It will be a tough act to follow. Senestraro inherited a program that appeared to be in decline — and even at its best Ashland had never advanced to the quarterfinals of the state tournament — and within four years turned it into a state powerhouse. In his final five seasons, Senestraro guided the Grizzlies to four semifinal appearances, two state championship games and the 2008 Class 5A state title, the only championship in Ashland baseball history.

It was a wildly successful ride, but one that Senestraro never took credit for during postgame interviews. Instead, he would talk mostly about the work ethic of his players, the senior leadership, the pitchers' focus, the team's fielding, the extra work in the batting cages, team chemistry, pitching coach Chuck Thacker, the weather, good luck, bad luck "… basically, anything but himself.

"That was definitely not me," Senestraro said, when asked about all the success. "That's all I really was, the conductor, who kind of kept the ship going in the right direction. It was a great group of kids who believed in our program who were willing to do what we asked them to do to be better."

Even in defeat, Senestraro was quick to doll out the praise.

"I know they battled as hard as they could," Senestraro said after losing to North Eugene in the 2010 state championship game. "I knew they gave me everything they had, and we just didn't have enough to win our last game."

According to his assistant coaches and others close to the program, Senestraro took steps to improve as a baseball coach, immersing himself in the game through coaching clinics, books and videos, not to mention the countless hours devoted to organizing practices and individual instruction in the batting cages.

The evolution of Senestraro kicked into high gear in 2007, when he and his assistants — including Dave Sebrell and Dave Tygerson — attended a coaching clinic put on by Oregon State University, one of the top baseball programs in the nation. After spending several days working closely with Oregon State coach Pat Casey and his staff, Senestraro returned to Ashland equipped with a greater understanding of the game, and big plans.

"We hung out with Casey, hit fungos on their field, talked to them personally," Senestraro said. "It was just a great experience, and we came back from there with a lot to talk to our kids about."

The Grizzlies' coaching staff also has made a habit of attending another annual coaching clinic held every January in Portland.

"(Senestraro) did have a lot to learn," added John Schroeder, who was an assistant coach under both Robustelli and Senestraro, "but to his credit he went to all those camps and he just learned a lot. He's so competitive and he hates to lose, and he just got better and better."

Seemingly, Senestraro's obsession with finding new ways to improve the program trickled into nearly every nook and cranny of Ashland High baseball, from statistical analysis — Schroeder scored every game using a PalmPilot, so if Ashland's No. 6 hitter was struggling against lefties with runners in scoring position, Senestraro knew about it — to batting fundamentals — Senestraro recorded each Ashland batter from multiple angles, then used a computer program to analyze their swings and compare them to sluggers in the Major Leagues.

That devotion did not come without a price, however. Meeting the demands of being a head coach cost Senestraro time with his family — his wife and six children, including former Grizzly second-baseman Tysin Senestraro.

But once he decided to take over the program, Senestraro said he simply had to go all-in.

"I made it a year round job, but you know, unfortunately, if you want to be competitive in high school sports it's come to that," he said, "which is a really sad thing. But I do consider (the players) my kids. I wanted them to have the best high school experience they could have, so if a kid wanted to hit I would be there. I'm not complaining. I loved my job."

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