CENTRAL POINT — Given the fact that the race to defend its Southern Sky Conference title is more akin to a marathon than a sprint, there was little panic among members of the Ashland High softball team following Saturday's league-opening setback. Whether there is legitimate cause for such will be seen in the days and weeks to come.
Crater senior Brittany Reeves struck out 17 batters and hit her first varsity home run to lead the two-time defending Class 5A state champion Comets to a doubleheader sweep of the Grizzlies, 5-3 and 9-2, at Don Faber Memorial Field.
"We just have to get mentally tougher," Ashland coach Misty Potochnick said after watching her team issue 15 walks and commit seven fielding errors in the twinbill. "We let the first game go. We should have won the first game. The second game we collapsed."
While far from being on the critical list, Ashland (8-6, 0-2 SSC) is mired in its first three-game losing streak since the final week of the 2007 regular season. The Grizzlies have been outscored 27-5 in three straight losses to reigning state champions Grants Pass (6A) and Crater (5A).
"There's really no choice but to put it behind us," Potochnick said. "We're 0-2 in the conference, but we just lost to the state champions. This isn't our whole season in one day."
Crater knows the feeling all too well. Despite returning six starters from last season's championship team, the Comets were just 2-8 before Saturday's sweep.
"They're a tough group and I know they're going to be there at the end," Crater coach Chris Arnold said of the Grizzlies.
Ashland looked quite respectable for 5 1/2; innings on Saturday, taking a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning of the opener. Trailing 1-0, the Grizzlies strung together four hits in the top of the sixth to score three times against Reeves, two coming on Amanda Good's clutch double to left. Rose Marston followed Good's hit with a RBI single and Ashland appeared headed for a fourth win in the its last five meetings with Crater.
Then the wheels came off.
Grizzlies pitcher Bella Pribyl (7-4) allowed a single and three walks — the last to pinch-hitter Moriah Lines with the bases loaded — before Tara Ruvalcaba blooped a single into left in front of Kaylin McAnary to score three runs and give the Comets a 5-3 victory. Four consecutive strikeouts early in the game were overshadowed by six walks and three wild pitches.
Pribyl's troubles continued in the second game, where she walked three more and allowed seven runs (four earned) before being pulled after 1 1-3 innings, trailing 6-0. (The seventh run crossed the plate after Pribyl left the game.)
"She will have to keep getting mentally tougher every day," Potochnick said. "Crater is a good-hitting team, so you're not going to throw the ball right over the plate. There were a couple of pitches she threw that just missed, in my opinion. She's just got to get more in rhythm."
Junior Hayley Ross relieved Pribyl and also struggled, allowing two more runs and issuing six walks in 4 2-3 innings while continuing to battle ligament and tendon problems and bursitis in her right rotator cuff.
"I think we have both been pitching a lot so we're both really sore," Ross said. "We just need a little break."
A few defensive plays might help as well. The Grizzlies made six errors in the second game — three coming in the decisive second inning, when Crater scored six times to take a 7-0 lead.
"We came out today flat," said senior co-captain Amanda Good, whose two doubles were among the few Ashland bright spots. "We just need to want the ball and want to beat everyone who faces us. No one is going to roll over for us. We have to beat them."
Ross, Good and Marston each had hits in both games for the Grizzlies.
While Pribyl and Ross struggled in the circle, Reeves (4-5) enjoyed her best day of the season. She struck out at least one batter in 12 of the 14 innings she pitched and walked only two.
"My changeup finally came through and started getting right where it's supposed to be," she said.
The icing on the cake was a solo home run leading off the sixth inning that cleared the fence in left field with plenty to spare.
"I was smiling the entire way around the bases," she said.
There were fewer smiles in the other dugout, just a firm sense of resolve to keep fighting.
"Just one of those off days," Ross said. "I think every team in this conference is going to have days like this. I think we'll be OK."
Ashland faces North Medford in a nonconference game on Thursday at North Mountain Park before hosting Mazama in an SSC twinbill on Saturday.
Ashland 000 003 0 — 3 5 1
Crater 000 014 x — 5 5 0
Pribyl and Santee; Reeves and Haga. WP —- Reeves (3-5). LP —- Pribyl (7-3). 2B —- ASH: Good. CRA: Hopkinson.
Ashland 002 000 0 — 2 7 6
Crater 160 011 x — 9 4 3
Pribyl, Ross (2) and Santee, Lehman (2); Reeves and Haga. WP —- Reeves (4-5). LP — Pribyl (7-4). 2B — ASH: Good. CRA: Rubulcava. HR —- CRA: Reeves (1).