by Michael Leonard

Sports Editor

During his first year in charge of the Hudson baseball team in 2013, coach Buddy Dice knew his primary goal was just to keep things rolling.

Hudson did just that.

Dice led the Explorers to a 24-6 record, including 9-1 in the Northeast Ohio Conference Valley Division. Hudson repeated as Valley Division champion and returned to the Division I district final at Hudson. The Explorers lost a 3-0 decision to Brunswick in the district championship game.

"It would have been nice to make it out of the district," Dice said. "I felt there were eight teams that could have won the district. It just didn't go our way."

This year, Dice has a bit of a different challenge as Hudson lost 10 seniors to graduation, including fourth-fifths of its starting infield. Two of those losses were starting right-handed pitchers Jono Chafe and Brian Malerick.

"Losing 10 quality seniors from last year, there are definitely some shoes to fill," Dice said. "Looking at the numbers, pitching-wise, we're losing nine wins from last year. However, we're also returning 15 wins. It's good and it's also scary when you project things out."

The Explorers have 12 letter winners back this spring, but Dice notes his team's offense will have a bit more pop this year as Hudson lost 57 stolen bases to graduation.

"I think we have more balance this year, "Dice said. "Several guys can hit for power. The expectation is they need to run to be in the lineup. I think we have the opportunity to hit the gaps."

Dice said he believes Stow could be the biggest challenge for the Explorers.

Despite the turnover, Dice said the goals for the team haven't changed.

"The goal is to win the league and to win 20 games," Dice said. "With any type of luck, there's a good chance we can go back to Canton [regionals] again. Of the seniors, there are eight of them that I've coached since they were 13 years old. They know the system."

Longtime Hudson head coach Chuck Schilling returns to the Explorers as a varsity assistant this year. He joins a staff that remains intact as Jim Nold, Paul Dudley, Tim Dixon and bullpen coach Pat Gallagher all return as varsity coaches.

Anchoring Hudson's pitching staff this spring will be senior No. 1 Kevin Zullo.

The right-hander had a huge junior year, going 7-0 with a save and three complete games. He finished with an earned-run average of 0.662 in 42-1/3 innings.

"Kevin has command of multiple pitches," Dice said. "He works fast, he has great mechanics and he understands the game."

When not on the mound, Zullo will see time at first base and designated hitter after hitting .254 this year.

Senior Nanak Saran will return as the No. 2 starter after going 2-2 last year with a 2.20 ERA. Saran also had a big year with the bat, hitting .369 with 10 doubles, 17 stolen bases and 20 runs batted in. He will hit No. 3 or 4 in the Explorers order and will play first or be the designated hitter when not on the mound.

Senior left-hander Joey Cahill will see time on the mound this year, while seniors Peter MacKay (2-0), Jared Hoffman (2-1) and southpaw Chris Seibert (2-1) all will see expanded roles.

Dice is very high on 6-foot-2 sophomore Ian Swan, who he says is fighting for No. 3 starter/closer role.

"He's a hard throwing right handed pitcher with a good curveball and a strong understanding of the game," Dice said.

With the loss of Alex Tench and Mitch Schoenman, Hudson lost a ton of experience at catcher. However, Dice believes senior Sam Evans should fill the starting role well.

A cadre that includes senior Sam Gundling and juniors Andrew Karpinski and Travis Wood will fill the backup catching spot.

With a platoon that includes Zullo, Saran and Swan, Dice believes he has a strong group at first base.

"Those guys like hitting for themselves," Dice said. "They should have a good season."

Likewise, Dice believes things as settled at third base, despite the loss of Kennedy.

After spending time elsewhere in the infield last year, senior Dan Joseph will return to his natural position at third. A three-year letter winner, Joseph hit .298 with 10 steals last year.

Junior KJ Tench also could fill in at third.

At shortstop, Dice said junior Jake Stuursma will get the nod. Stuursma started at Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy during his freshman year.

"I'm not worried about Jake at all," Dice said. "He runs well, he hits well, he makes all the plays."

Hudson has a huge hole at second base to fill with leadoff hitter Alex Agra graduated. Dice said the fight for the starting role is "still up in the air" and has been "probably the most competitive battle" of the spring.

Senior Jared Hoffman was the backup last year, but juniors Jacob McKenzie and Matt Wallace and sophomore Sean Cahill all are in the mix.

Dice said Joey Cahill plays the tricky right field at The Ballpark at Hudson as well as anyone, so the elder Cahill will start again after hitting .333 last year.

"Having him in the lineup is a huge thing," Dice said. "He has such a natural swing."

Hudson junior Dean Miller will get starting nod in center field.

In left field, senior Braden Wright returns and Dice notes he has a chip on his shoulder after hitting .200 last season.

"I think he feels he has something to prove," Dice said. "He's definitely playing like he has to prove something."

Wood, sophomore Mack Schoenman and junior Tim Reiman also will compete for time in the outfield.

The Explorers were scheduled to take their annual trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C. this week. Hudson is set to open its regular season with a doubleheader March 29 against Peters Township (Pa.) and Williamsport (Pa.) at 11 a.m.

The Explorers' home opener is scheduled to take place against NOC rival Strongsville April 1 at 4:30 p.m.