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The 2016 season was one of the most remarkable in the history of Stow-Munroe Falls baseball.
At one time, the Bulldogs were 1-9 and looking a bit lost.
Then suddenly, everything clicked.
Stow won 18 of its last 20 games, finishing the season at 19-11, including a 7-5 record in the inaugural season of the Suburban League National Conference.
That surge led Stow on a playoff run, which saw it upset Walsh Jesuit in the district final and previously unbeaten Massillon Jackson in the regional semifinal. Stow bowed out of the playoffs with a 10-0 loss to Solon in the Division I Canton regional final.
Needless to say, Bulldogs coach Aaron DeBord is looking to build on the momentum from last season.
"For about a month, it was a lot of fun," DeBord said. "Last year's seniors did everything we needed and wanted them to do. They not only led us last year, but really aligned the program for the future.
While Stow lost eight seniors, including pitchers Logan Huffman and Frankie Parker (both at Hiram College), Jeremy Parton (College of Wooster) and Jake Dohak (Cabrini University) and catcher Owen Fankhauser. However, DeBord said the cupboard is anything but bare as he enters his third season in charge of the program.
"We graduated eight seniors but we're returning six everyday starters and more than 100 innings on the hill," DeBord said. "I think we're going to be a bit different this year. We're going to be able to hit the ball for a bit more power. We feel that we're stronger in all facets of the game this season."
"The thing we like about the team this year is we've got a lot of depth," he added. "We used to have good group of starters, but not much behind them. Now we feel that we can compete through the bottom of our roster."
DeBord said he'll need that depth because he believes the National Conference remains one of the toughest baseball leagues in the states.
"Twinsburg has two Division I athletes and Wadsworth has won the last three league titles," DeBord said. "I'd be surprised if the entire league is not competing for something more than league title. Our league prepared for our run we made last year."
DeBord's assistant coaches include varsity assistants Kevin Pratt, Andrew Payne and George DeBord, along with pitching coach Jonathan Kountis. The junior varsity team will be led by Doug Sobey with assistants Eric Browne and Adam Smith. Bill Longitahno and Alex Shoff will lead the freshman team.
With so much turnover on the mound, DeBord said he is "still kind of working through our pitching staff," though it's likely sophomore Evan Bainbridge will get the nod as Stow's top league-game starter. Last year as a freshman, Bainbridge was Stow's No. 3 starter and went 3-5, throwing 25 innings. The 6-foot-8 right hander has a lot of velocity.
DeBord said junior Collin Lang might be Stow's opening day starter, with seniors Jordan Jolly and Nick O'Verko also pushing to start league games. Junior Brett Rhodes saw spot starts and long relief time last year.
Meanwhile, Stow's bullpen will include sophomore left-hander Colin Harris and senior right-hander Stephen Falbo, while hard-throwing junior Eric Schilling will take over the closer role.
Frankhauser leaves a huge hole to fill at catcher, after starting behind the plate since his freshman year.
DeBord said junior Drew Bradley spent all of last season in the understudy role and is ready to take over as the starter.
Behind Bradley, DeBord called junior Nick Arlequeeuw "a super utility guy" who will see time at catcher.
DeBord said a strength of his team is the fact the entire starting infield is back.
At first base, Schilling returns after a excellent season with his glove and bat. He will hit third for the Bulldogs.
"Eric was a major part of our lineup last season," DeBord said. "We're gong to look to him to have a lot of success."
DeBord noted Stow started its surge last season when Lang became the Bulldogs's starting second baseman. He will return to that role this spring.
O'Verko is back for his third year as Stow's starting shortstop.
"Nick is our only guy that's going to be a three-year starter for us," DeBord said. "He's a guy we're going to be relying on a lot."
Also returning is junior Thomas McLauglin a third baseman after he showed a solid amount of power last spring.
DeBord also said senior Max Stillisano has "stepped up incredibly" this spring. While Stillisano will start for the Bulldogs in some role, DeBord said that role will change on a daily basis.
Anchoring the Bulldogs' outfield will be senior center fielder Matt Conger, a second-year starter and third-year letterwinner who also will be Stow's lead-off hitter.
"Towards the end of last season, Matt had some huge at bats," DeBord said.
Junior Alex Cramer looks to get some time in center field.
In right field, Jolly returns after committing to Wittenberg University.
"Jordan is a great hitter that we're looking for a lot from," DeBord said. "He's one of the hardest throwing guys."
In left field, Rhodes is a returning starter from the Bulldogs' playoff run.
"He's a great hitter," DeBord said. "His bat will be a catalyst for us."
DeBord calls junior Griffin Mohney Stow's "fourth outfielder," while junior Nate Hallam will play a utility role.
Stow was set to open the season March 25 vs. Massillon Perry, but results weren't available at press time.
Stow opens National Conference play by hosting Wadsworth March 29 and visiting the Grizzlies March 30. First pitch both games is set for 4:30 p.m.