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No matter what happens on the field this spring, it will be a season to remember for Stow-Munroe Falls softball coach Doug Hawkins.
There were questions whether Hawkins would return this season after being diagnosed late last spring with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Hawkins is back for his 12th season in charge of the Bulldogs and committed to coaching as long as he physically can.
"It's been a tough year obviously. I'm blessed with the guys who have been here with me," Hawkins said. "I can't get out there and swinging a bat the way I used to. We're getting through it. I'm blessed being here now. I enjoy the kids and I think they enjoy me."
Hawkins said varsity assistant coach Bob Podges has stepped up during preseason practices. Chris Sheppard also is back as a varsity assistant, while Steve Dressmen and Eric Miller will continue to coach at junior varsity.
On the field, Hawkins does not remember 2016 fondly. Stow went 10-15 and finished 5-9 in its first year in the Suburban League National Conference.
"It was disappointing in a lot of ways," Hawkins said. "That was the first losing season that I can remember in 20 years with the program. We started a lot of kids last year that didn't have a lot of varsity experience. I think we had 30-some errors on the left side of the infield alone, which is not consistent with Stow softball. We're hoping, with a lot of work, that we're going to take another step this year."
Hawkins joked he hoped the National Conference was "all down" this spring. He noted Wadsworth and Brecksville-Broadview Heights likely will be favorites for the title, but "everybody will be in the mix."
Stow did lose some significant talent to graduation, including catcher Landry Slider -- now playing at Ohio Dominican University -- outfielder Kayla Esterle and second baseman Beckah Jones. All three were four-year varsity players.
"We're going to to miss all three of those young ladies," Hawkins said.
Stow will be young again with only one senior on the roster, but the Bulldogs have nine juniors and return their entire pitching staff this season.
After taking her lumps last spring, junior Clara Borsilli returns as Stow's No. 1 pitcher. She threw 81 innings last season with a 3.77 earned run average.
"I think she's stepped up a lot," Hawkins said. "The speed has picked up on her ball. Her spin on her pitches looks a lot better."
Sophomore pitcher Macie Bell also is back, as Hawkins said he is looking for more consistency.
Hawkins noted it would be impossible to replace Slider's impact at catcher.
"We may not see that arm for another 10 years," Hawkins said.
However, junior Gillian Holcomb looked to be the front runner to start at catcher, as Hawkins notes she blocks the ball very well. Sophomore Kennedy Cesnak also will see time at catcher, as well as playing the outfield and designated player.
Stow's lone senior is first baseman Lindsey Houck, who returns after hitting .280 last spring.
"I'd like to get her up over .300," Hawkins said. "So far this year, she's been a little leader over there. She's taking control of things."
Replacing another four-year starter in Jones at second base, Hawkins will turn to sophomore Jenna Stout this spring.
Hawkins needs a bounce-back year from his two left-side infielders and he is confident he will get it.
Junior shortstop Brittany Hoopingarner hit .329 last spring and likely will hit in the No. 3 spot.
"Her arm had gotten pretty strong," Hawkins said. "We're looking for her to bounce back. It wasn't happening for her [in the field]."
Like Hoopingarner, junior third baseman Hanna Ingram had a good spring with the bat in 2016, hitting .354. Hawkins looks for more power and a return to good fielding from the three-year starter.
Anchoring Stow's outfield will be sophomore Claire O'Verko. The Bulldogs lead-off hitter had a .389 batting average during her freshman year.
"She's just a natural," Hawkins said. "She doesn't do anything special, she just makes the plays and throws the ball well. She's one of those kids who picks up the ball and knows what to do."
Junior Rachel Mosko looks to maintain her starting right field spot, which she earned last season. In left field, a platoon that includes juniors Lauren Keyser, Katelyn McDowell, Carson Harper and Eryn Church and sophomore Trinity Duran will see playing time.
"I think on offense, we'll have to play a lot more small ball than we have in the past," Hawkins said. "We'll have to do a lot of running and bunting. I'm always confindent in our defense. Last year kind of threw me."
Stow opens its season with a pair National Conference home games at Weddle Park, as Wadsworth visits March 29 and Nordonia visits March 30. First pitch both days is at 4:30 p.m.