Shorthanded Pilots seek threepeat

With a been there, done that shrug of his shoulders, Hayden Miller quickly brushed off any notion that the shorthanded Ashland Pilots are in trouble heading into the American Legion A state tournament.

"We've got a lot of guys and we've got a lot of guys that play a lot of different positions," said Miller, whose resume includes three state titles — two in American Legion play and one at the high school level. "It's just a matter of getting used to the positions. We just have to respond well to the change and I think we will."

The change Miller speaks of is the absence of six Pilots, including four starters, who are currently in Japan for the Pacific Rim Bowl, the football series between Ashland High and the Japan All-Stars that picks up every other year at alternating sites. This year, the game will be played in Osaka, more than a few Miller line drives away from North Medford High, where the Pilots will be gunning for their third consecutive state championship.

The eight-team, double elimination tourney will be held Friday through Tuesday. All games prior to the semifinal round are scheduled to go seven innings. In the semis and finals, teams will play nine-inning games.

The winner earns a berth to the American Legion A regional tournament, which begins Aug. 7 in Kearns, Utah.

"Our expectations are to win," Ashland infielder Billy Hansen said, "and anything less would be considered a failure."

Ashland plays Sheldon in the tournament-opener at 9 a.m. Friday, with the winner advancing to play LaGrande Subway or the North Eugene Highlanders on Saturday. In other first-round action, Roseburg Pepsi will take on the Klamath Falls Hawks and the Salem Senators will face the host North Medford Mavericks.

Despite a lineup that was constantly in flux thanks to outside commitments — jobs, basketball camps, vacations, etc. — the Pilots (35-6) were remarkably consistent during the regular season, enduring only one sweep while claiming the Area 4 South championship.

The team's strength proved to be its high-powered batting lineup, which routinely put up double-digit scores. With Miller, center fielder Luke Baldrica (team-high seven home runs) and designated hitter Kealii Cecil (five homers) leading the way, the Pilots enter the postseason on a roll. Ashland scored 22 runs on 30 hits in its last doubleheader of the regular season Saturday against the Grants Pass Diggers.

"We have guys who weren't hitting at the beginning of the year who are now starting to hit," said Ashland head coach Josh Leedy, pointing out that near the bottom of Ashland's lineup, Wes Hitchko and Evan Westhelle are on a tear.

That's good news for the Pilots because they'll have to overcome the loss of several sluggers to the PRB: cleanup hitter and staff ace Lucas Stone, third baseman Brent Hegdahl, shortstop Nick Hall and catcher AJ Adams all are busy representing Ashland High in Japan.

While the Pilots still expect to score runs in bunches, they said that the most telling indicator for the team will come on defense.

Miller (5-0) will start on the mound against Sheldon, Max Anderson will take over at third, Evan Westhelle will catch and, in perhaps the most crucial switch, Hansen will fill the big hole at short.

One of the best defensive players in the state, Hall has been a human wall while playing short for both the Pilots and Grizzlies over the past two years.

"Hall's a guy that will go and make every play and then plays that he's not supposed to make and having a guy like that was a blessing," Leedy said. "You can only wish for a shortstop like that."

Hansen knows he doesn't have Hall's range. What matters, he said, is that he makes the routine plays.

"It's going to be tough to replace (Hall), but I just gotta do the best I can and make every play that I can," said Hansen, who's been a standout infielder on every youth baseball team he's played on going back to Little League. "I'm not going to be as spectacular as Nick but I need to make all the plays that I can and try to help the team win."

As far as pitching is concerned, Leedy isn't too concerned about the loss of Stone, who led the team with eight wins (8-1). That position, Leedy insists, was hurt the least by the Pacific Rim Bowl. The Pilots are equipped with six starters, including Brady Thomas, who picked up the win in Ashland's state championship-clinching victory over North Medford last year.

Thomas has seen only limited action this summer while recovering from a shoulder injury suffered during the high school season, but has shown great progress recently, according to Leedy. Hansen, Cecil, Anderson, Westhelle and Sam Taylor also will likely see plenty of action on the mound for Ashland.

With temperatures expected to hit triple digits this weekend, the Pilots and their 12-man roster could be pushed to the brink. But even as obstacles continue to mount, Ashland's expectations remain the same.

Apparently, Miller's confidence is seeping into the rest of the team.

"Guys are going to have to step up and everyone's going to have to play hard," Baldrica said. "But I think we can do it."

Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or

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