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Reflecting on the 2016 season, Hudson fifth-year head baseball coach Buddy Dice is generally happy.
The Explorers finished 20-8, including 9-5 in the inaugural season of the Suburban League National Conference. Hudson was eliminated by Solon in the districts semifinals, as the Comets went on to reach the Division I state final four.
"With the competition we faced and some of the hurdles we had to overcome, I was extremely pleased with how our seniors responded last year," Dice said.
Hudson said goodbye to nine seniors, including center fielder Mac Shoenman (now playing at Ashland University) and catcher Joe Charpentier (John Carroll University in University Heights). Starting pitchers Michael Moreland and Doug Erb also graduated.
Despite these loses, Dice (90-25) said he is "excited" about season. The Explorers have six full-time starters back, 11 seniors in the program and six left-handed bats in the lineup. While still committed to playing "Buddy Ball" -- bunting often and running every chance it can -- Hudson might have a bit more power at the plate this year.
"I think we have more speed and more experience on the bases," Dice said. "We've got some guys that hit in the gaps. We also have close to 80 innings [of pitching] coming back."
After finishing tied for third with Nordonia last season, Dice is adamant about the strength of the National Conference.
"I think it's going to be another year of cutthroat baseball," Dice said. "Everyone seems to put a fight up. Stow got hot at the right time. Twinsburg won the league with Wadsworth. I'm sure that Hudson will be in the mix."
Dice's coaching staff stays intact. Varsity assistants include Tim Dixon, Jim Nold, Paul Dudley, Mark Eger and former longtime head coach Chuck Schilling.
The Explorers' pitching staff has several key returning players, led by senior captain Troy Brown. Brown became Hudson's No. 2 starter last season, going 4-0 with a 1.26 earned run average in 33-1/3 innings pitched. He likely will be the Explorers' No. 1 starter.
Senior Johnny Merrill will have a bigger role on the mound this year. Last year, Merrill went 3-1 with a save and a 2.49 ERA in 19-2/3 innings of work.
Junior Isaac Wiley also is pressing for starting time after working mostly from the bullpen last spring. He went 2-1 with a save and a 2.94 ERA in 2016.
"I feel pretty good about that trio," Dice said.
In the bullpen, Dice said he has "seven other guys that bring something different to the table."
That group includes seniors Sam Winston -- who had two saves last year, Johnny Colesi and Seth Draper, junior Stephen Bianconi and sophomores Nolan O'Connell, Aiden Samuel and Grant Gedeon.
Dice admits he has a Joe Charpentier-sized hole to fill at catcher, but he said three players are in the running. Senior Dev Gupta saw spot time behind Charpentier last year, while junior Alec Jackson can hit the ball with power. Gedeon also is in the mix.
Things are more settled at first base with Draper back after hitting .290 last season. Senior Bryce Kilfoyle and O'Connell also could see time at first.
Dice said the rotation between second base, shortstop and third base could be interchangeable.
Senior Spencer McClure looks to get the nod at second base, while senior Hayden Knox is healthy and ready to start at shortstop, as he recently committed to Wittenberg University in Springfield. Juniors Matt Lipczynski and Matt Mileski also could see time in the middle-infield spots.
At third, Merril is expected to start at third when not pitching, while senior Nolan Laughlin will see time at third base and the outfield. Dice called Colesi "a true utility guy," while junior Colt Pallay adds some power to the lineup.
While Schoenman was small in stature, he leaves a huge hole in center field. However, Dice is very high on sophomore Ryan Mitcheltree in center.
"He's a ball hawk out there," Dice said. "Having some of the experience around him will help."
Indeed, Hudson has a lot of experience in the corner outfield spots, including senior captain Matt Oscarson starting in left field.
"He had a lot of big hits when we needed him to last year," Dice said.
In right field, Kilfoyle will start, as he also recently committed to Wittenberg. Kilfoyle hit .278 with 10 runs batted in last season.
Bianconi and junior Matt Friend also will see time in the outfield.
Hudson was scheduled for a trip to Destin, Fla., to face some out of state competition this week.
The Explorers were set to begin play against Carlisle March 28. Results were not available at press time.
Hudson is scheduled to play Spring Hill (Tenn.) March 29 at noon and Muscle Shoals (Ala.) March 30 at 9 a.m.
The Explorers' home opener is against conference rival North Royalton April 4 at 4:30 p.m.