Jason Donald spent a third of his life playing professional baseball, retired, returned to his roots as an assistant at Buchanan High this season and found a prize pupil in Zach Ashford.
“He’s extremely gifted with great hand-eye coordination and his aptitude is off the charts,” Donald says of the senior center fielder and leadoff hitter, who will lead top-seeded Buchanan against No. 3 Clovis in a rematch of the Central Section Division I championship at 8 p.m. Saturday at Visalia’s Rawhide Ballpark.
Fresno State-bound Ashford will carry a .477 batting average — great for any high school player; extraordinary given the Bears’ competition in nonleague, the Tri-River Athletic Conference and playoffs — into the game, one year after Clovis defeated Buchanan 3-2 to cap the inaugural, two-day, six-game section finals gathering at the park.
The Cougars (24-10) are 4-0 against the Bears (28-4) in baseball finals and have won seven titles in all.
Buchanan, seeking its fifth section crown since 2005, is ranked fifth in the state by Cal-Hi Sports and 19th nationally by Baseball America. And this comes a year after Clovis finished No. 1 in the state and No. 4 nationally.
It will mark the latest in a series of duels matching two of the most accomplished coaches in section history in the Bears’ Tom Donald (407-120-4, .770, 17 years) and the Cougars’ James Patrick (672-230-2, .744, 30 years).
The all-TRAC showdown also will have Buchanan senior right-hander Conner Loeprich (8-0, 1.37 ERA) oppose senior left-hander Zac Whittaker.
And that presents an important left vs. left matchup with Whittaker and Ashford, who also has 27 steals, 33 runs and needs two hits to tie Jason Donald’s school single-season record of 55 (2003).
“The guy that has the record might get caught by the guy he’s teaching,” says Buchanan coach Tom Donald, father of Jason.
Key to Ashford’s development, Tom Donald says, is his willingness to absorb instruction from Jason and fellow assistant Bryan Marsoobian: “Zach is trusting information he’s getting, and he’s getting top-notch information. He’s working the process and not deviating from the plan.”
Not to suggest Ashford suddenly blossomed at Buchanan.
“We knew Zach was going to be a quality player in seventh grade (at Bears feeder Alta Sierra Intermediate),” Tom Donald says. “There was more than just speed; he had the hand-eye coordination, savvy and basetball instincts.
“Combine that with his work ethic and good things are going to happen.”
The 5-foot-9, 160-pound Ashford is 5 for 7 with five runs in the postseason.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling of comfort when he comes up to the dish,” Jason Donald says. “He continually puts pressure on the defense.
“He’s very advanced and I think that will transfer to (the college level) early.”
Ashford committed to Fresno State and coach Mike Batesole last June.
“I didn’t have that many looks,” he says, “and Coach Batesole one day calls and says, ‘Hey, could you stop by and talk?’ He had the scholarship right there and I was like, ‘Oh wow.’
“I grew up watching Fresno State games, my parents (Kevin and Joanie) also went there. So, of course, I wanted to.”