The mountains that loom in the distance beyond the left field fence at North Mountain Park serve as a visual reminder to the Ashland High softball team just what lies in front of it over the coming four weeks.
Picked by some as contenders to defend their Southern Sky Conference championship, the Grizzlies will take the field Saturday against Eagle Point trying to break their longest losing streak in three years and focused simply on staying alive in the race for one of the SSC's three berths to the Class 5A state playoffs.
"There's not one thing I can point to," Ashland coach Misty Potochnick said. "It's just the mentality of the team, being able to play through stuff. We have a tough road ahead of us and I guess we'll see what we've got in us."
Ashland (8-8, 0-4 SSC) trails Eagle Point (7-9, 1-3) by one game for third place in the conference. A doubleheader sweep of the Eagles would put the Grizzlies back in contention — not to mention a better state of mind — while a pair of losses would leave the team in a deep hole with just six conference games remaining.
"I think it's critical for us as a team, just to see that we can do it," senior Caitlin Williams added. "We need a win under our belts."
"Yeah, it is a must-win," junior Hayley Ross said.
Just how the Grizzlies have gone from first to last — having lost six of their last seven games after a 7-2 start — is a mysterious tale of woe that encompasses virtually all aspects of the game.
Look at any successful high school softball team and you will find a proficient, and often dominating, pitcher. Senior Bella Pribyl certainly was expected to fill that role for Ashland after going 20-5 with a 0.72 ERA last season and being named SSC Pitcher of the Year.
But Pribyl has yet to regain the form she showed as a junior. She's 7-6, with a 3.05 ERA and 83 strikeouts in 75 2-3 innings. Her numbers in four SSC games are 0-4, a 6.52 ERA with 11 strikeouts against 12 walks allowed.
"She just doesn't seem as overpowering as she has been," Mazama senior Ali Edwards said after homering against Pribyl last weekend.
Largely because of time commitments to her roles in theatre, Pribyl didn't throw much during the off season and has missed several practices this spring while visiting colleges, where she plans to further her acting.
Another factor could be the OSAA's decision to move the pitching rubber back to the NCAA standard of 43 feet from home plate, three feet further than in previous years.
"We play with it during the summer at a lot of tournaments we went to, so we're a little more familiar with it," said Ross, the team's other pitcher. "But it definitely makes a difference. When you're up at bat, you have a lot more time. It also makes a difference to your pitching because you have to change the way your ball moves and you have to throw it a lot harder so that it moves the same way it did."
"I think it makes it more of a hitter's game than a pitcher's game," Pribyl said. "I haven't changed my motion, because that would be bad mechanics. We have done drills where I've thrown further back to try to get use to throwing from further back."
There is some debate among players and coaches whether the change has been more detrimental to pitchers like Pribyl, who relies on a fastball and riseball, or pitchers like Ross, who put more movement on their pitches.
"If you're a power pitcher, you have to hit your spots more, because your power's not as strong as it was," Potochnick said.
A shoulder injury that could wind up requiring off-season surgery has limited Ross' availability in the circle, putting even more of the load on Pribyl's shoulders.
"I always feel a lot of pressure," Pribyl said. "But I think if I go in with the attitude of feeling more pressure, I'm going to do worse than if I'm relaxed and just trying to do my best."
Hitting was thought to be among the team's strengths, but the Grizzlies are batting just .190 over the last five games and have scored just eight runs in that span.
Among the regulars, only Carley Santee (5-for-15) and Rose Marston (4-for-14) are hitting better than .250 during that time. The rest of the squad is a combined 14-for-102 (.137).
"I think we're a little off our game," Williams said after the losses to Mazama. "We're all just practicing and trying our hardest. But I think we didn't realize that we're going to have to take it up another notch, that every team in our conference is going to bring it and we need to bring it, too."
The top five hitters in the batting order — Sarah Silbowitz, Ross, Amanda Good, Marston and Nicole Lehman — are hitting .196 with five runs scored and six RBIs in the four SSC games. Only three times in the last 33 innings has the team strung together more than one hit.
"It isn't that we haven't been hitting well, we just haven't been hitting consistently," Potochnick said.
The Grizzlies have committed 10 errors in their eight wins and 23 in their eight losses, including 14 in the four SSC defeats. No position has been immune.
"Defensively, we can't give them four or five outs," Potochnick said after watching the team make seven errors and allow five unearned runs in the twinbill against Mazama.
The Grizzlies have six returning starters from last season's team. But the players they lost — including All-SSC performers Jubilee Sharpe, Samantha Gilbert and Kylie Cantrell — left holes that have yet to be adequately filled.
Yet, the team's confidence seemingly remains intact.
"We're all working really hard to get ourselves out of this," Pribyl said.
Potochnick doesn't have a great deal of flexibility when it comes to personnel, positioning or even batting order. No one is transferring in or coming off the disabled list. If the team is to turn the season around and reach the playoffs for a third consecutive season, the surge will have to come from the current mix of players.
"I'm confident in the kids that are in there," Potochnick said. "We are pretty good. We've yet to see the best of the Grizzlies."