Shorthanded Pilots off to regionals

Don Senestraro is focusing on the positives.

Yes, the Ashland Pilots head coach knows that his team will be severely shorthanded at the American Legion Class A Northwest Regional tournament thanks to injuries and prior commitments (school, jobs, etc.). But there is a bright side.

"There's not going to be much complaining about playing time," Senestraro said, "that's for sure."

That's probably a safe bet since the two-time Oregon state champion Pilots (34-9) shoved off to Anacortes, Wash. on Monday with just 10 players, one of which (Kealii Cecil) broke his ankle less than a month ago and will only be available for emergency duty. Not making the trip for Ashland will be leadoff hitter and utility infielder Hayden Miller, starting center fielder Max Gordon, utility player Josh McLaughlin, pitcher Tyler Killeen, infielder Alex Nagel and infielder Luke Baldrica.

Miller and Gordon probably represent the biggest losses. Both played key roles on each of Ashland's three state championship teams &

two American Legion titles and one high school championship. Still, the Pilots didn't appear worried following Monday's batting practice at North Mountain Park.

"I think if we just hit the ball like we did up at state and play really good defense, we're going to do just as well without them," Pilots' slugger Ian Kendall said.

Garrett Tygerson, another power hitter who doubles as Ashland's ace on the mound, agreed.

"(Miller) was our leadoff hitter, played third base and just about every position and so that's a big loss right there," Tygerson said, "but I feel like the younger kids can step up."

The eight-team, double-elimination tournament begins Wednesday with four first-round games and wraps up Sunday with the championship round. Ashland faces Washington at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in the tournament opener, with the winner slated to play either defending regional champion Idaho or Montana on Thursday afternoon.

All games will be played at Volunteer Field, the home of Anacortes, which received an automatic berth for hosting the tournament. Also gunning for a regional title will be Alaska, Utah and Wyoming.

Shortstop Nick Hall will replace Miller in the leadoff spot for the Pilots, but Senestraro has yet to decide who will slip into Hall's vacant No. 2 spot. One option is to move everybody up, but Senestraro would rather keep Kendall at No. — and Tygerson at No. 4 since that duo has produced a combined 23 home runs &

12 for Tygerson and 11 for Kendall.

Tygerson and Kendall will also see plenty of action on the mound, along with Luke Stone and Brady Thomas.

The tourney marks the return of Senestraro, who coaches the high school team and coached the Pilots since 2005 before deciding to take this summer off. He takes over for Royce Miller, who had family commitments.

The return is a welcomed one for Senestraro, who led the Pilots to a 2007 state championship victory, a team first, but missed the regional tournament to spend time with his family. The Pilots eventually advanced to the regional semifinals before getting knocked out.

"I'm very excited," Senestraro said. "Like I was telling the kids the other day, I'm excited to be back, I'm looking forward to it. We're going to go up there and we're going to play tough and hopefully I can bring some enthusiasm because it's been a long summer."

Very long, actually. Counting the high school varsity season, several Pilots will be playing their 74th game of the year on Wednesday. Regardless of what happens at regionals, however, the tournament will mark the end of the road for Ashland. There is no American Legion A World Series, so a baseball season that for most began in February will finally end later this week. That begs the question: will baseball burnout be a factor for the Pilots at regionals?

"I think we all kind of went through that stage a month ago when we lost to Phoenix-Talent and North Coos," Tygerson said. "But now I feel like we're all back into it again and we are like we were at the start of the season, really excited and just wanting to play."

"No, these guys are used to competing and they love challenges," Senestraro added. "That's why you play sports to have challenges and this is just another challenge they put upon us. Any athlete that plays this game you want to step up and you want to compete against the best that you can play against and this is what we need to do.

"I haven't seen any burnout and I'm not going to allow them to burnout. We're going to play as hard as we can for Ashland and the state of Oregon."

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