When the Ashland Pilots held their first preseason practice, there was no need for any first-time introductions.
Everybody already knew everybody.
There was no kind of getting-to-know-you phase that some American Legion teams may deal with at the beginning of each season because players are coming from here, there and everywhere in between.
That’s the benefit of Ashland High School having a varsity baseball team that was filled with freshmen, sophomores and juniors during the 2018 season.
“It’s one of the really hard things when you first go to college or your first year in a program and kids don’t know each others’ arm strengths or don’t know how to play together,” Pilots head coach Oz Sailors said. “But with this group, they’ve been playing together since they were little kids, so they know what they bring to the table, they know what role they play, they know what role they play in any given situation and they really accept that and embrace that.”
Sailors, who served as Ashland High’s JV baseball coach this spring, and the Pilots start their season on Sunday afternoon with a 1 p.m. doubleheader against Klamath Falls at North Mountain Park.
Coming off a high school season that saw Ashland win just one game and finish with a 1-25 overall record, one might think that it was more of a slow walk into the summer season rather than an enthusiastic leap into a new set of games.
But as the Pilots got ready for practice this past Tuesday afternoon at North Mountain Park, the vibe amongst the players was anything but that.
It was boisterous, even contagious.
You’d think this young group of ballplayers was as loose as can be, not one that was just a few weeks removed from a last-place finish in the Midwestern League.
“Personally, I never thought I could be content with a one-win season — I wasn’t content with it at all,” first baseman/outfielder Evan McLennan said, “but from where we were as a team, and I knew going into the season that it was going to be rough, at the end of the season it was probably one of the best season I’ve had as a baseball player. As a team, we’re looking forward to next year, we’re still excited and we want to get better for next year.”
The immediate thought is about their upcoming 21-game schedule, sure, but knowing that the Pilots’ roster this summer is essentially the same one Ashland High head coach Nick Hall — who is an assistant on Sailors’ coaching staff this season — it’s impossible to not think of the future as well.
And even with the struggles that came with the 2018 high school season,
As is the case every summer no matter what level, the goal is to get better.
That’s especially true for a group where the vast majority of its players just finished their first varsity season.
“They want it, they want to get better and they have that will to win — and that’s what’s awesome about this group of kids,” Sailors said. “With this group, there’s just a hunger for the game — and they have that. That’s something you can’t just teach. They know that they have their work cut out for them, but they’re willing to go after it together. I think they’re a group of kids that have played together for a long time, so they’ve won together, they’ve lost together, and I think they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with in the future.”
The continued quest is to overcome the youth and inexperience.
For the Pilots, there’s only one way to try to do that — keep playing ball.
“I think that’s the biggest part of it, if you look at our games from season, is that I think experience killed us the most,” McLennan said. “We just had so many guys who didn’t have experience playing at the varsity level — which is really a different game playing varsity compared to a younger level. The more they play this summer and get that experience, we’re going to come out next year and look like a different team — at least that’s the plan.
“Just continue what we were doing during the spring season, continue getting better as a group because we have the same exact team this summer and going into next season.”
The names are the same as they were in the spring.
And those names are hoping that a little summer ball is where their foundation continues to be established for years in the future.
“The thing that’s special about this team is that in baseball, you really have to embrace failure and it’s really easy when things aren’t going your way or you’re struggling when it’s a rebuilding year to just roll over and play dead,” Sailors said. “But all the guys are back out here for the summer. This is finals week (at Ashland High), they don’t have to be out here, but they were out here (Monday) when I opened the cage up. They want to get better, and there’s something special about that and they’re willing to go through the learning curve together, to stick it out and continue to play ball.
“They want it, they want to get better and they have that will to win — and that’s what’s awesome about this group of kids.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.