The last few years have been good ones for the Stow-Munroe Falls softball team.
After a 5-6 start last season, Stow ripped off a 17-game winning streak, which didn't end until the Bulldogs were eliminated by Austintown Fitch in the Division I district semifinal at Boardman.
Stow finished 22-7 overall and 8-2 in the Northeast Ohio Conference River Division, winning the River Division for the second straight year.
Thus, ninth-year head coach Doug Hawkins knows his team enters the 2014 season with a title of "favorite" hanging over it.
"I guess we have a little target on our back," Hawkins said. "We've won the last two division titles. The kids buy into the program where, every time we go out there, we need to get better. I can talk about the division and districts, but we're going to take one thing at a time.
"Barring no injuries, we should have a nice run again, I think," he added.
Stow only lost three starters to graduation, but all three were multi-year starters. The biggest loss was first baseman Stephenie Little, now playing at the College of Wooster, while shortstop Lindsay Jones and outfielder Olivia Rizzo also graduated.
Despite these losses, Hawkins believes his team will have no problems scoring, after the Bulldogs hit better than .300 as a team last spring.
"I still think we're going to have the ability to hit the ball," Hawkins said. "Right now, we've had two scrimmages and we've shown it. Any spot in our lineup, we could get some big numbers out at any time."
There has been one slight change to the River Division this spring, with Mentor leaving and Mayfield joining Stow, Cuyahoga Falls, Hudson, Solon and Twinsburg in the division.
Though Hawkins would love a three-peat of division titles, he realizes it will be a challenge.
"I think all of them have good players," Hawkins said of the division foes. "I really think Twinsburg's going to pick it up a lot this year. Solon's been at a high level for a long time."
Hawkins' coaching staff remain intact withBob Podges and Chris Sheppard as varsity assistants.
After spending the last three years in center field, senior Jenni Heid will move to shortstop for the Bulldogs this spring. Hawkins said the All-NOC senior has adapted well to the infield and still brings a very good bunting stroke. She will hit either No. 1 or No. 9 in Stow's lineup.
Senior Sarah Schmidt will start full time at first base this season. Schmidt hit "about .300" last year, but Hawkins said she has improved with her glove this season.
"She's pretty much ahead of the pack right now at first base," Hawkins said. "She's gotten a little quicker."
Rounding out the senior class, Erin Sadler will compete for time at one of Stow's corner outfield positions.
Stow's talented junior class will be anchored by Sadie Jones, the returning River Division player of the year.
Jones will look to improve after going 16-6 on the mound last year.
"Her speed has gotten a lot better and her dropball had gotten a lot sharper," Hawkins said. "She works at softball 24/7."
Jones also hit just over .300 last year near the top of Stow's order. However, Hawkins expects to play Jones more in the outfield this year as well.
That's because fellow junior Alyssa Ingram had a good season on the mound, going 6-0 with an earned run average of about 2.00.
"She had some big games for us," Hawkins said. "The best scenario I have is that she pitches one game and Sadie pitches the next game."
Junior Chrissie Vaughan will get the starting nod at third base this season, as Hawkins expects her to have a breakout season.
Hawkins called junior outfielder Erin Kolke "an unsung hero" for the Bulldogs after she hit .370 last year. With Heid moving to the infield, Kolke will start in center field this spring.
"She's a very good little hitter," Hawkins said. "She's going to anchor our outfield. On her summer teams, that's where she normally plays."
Speedy junior Lizzie Modderman gets the call up from the junior varsity team. She will primarily serve as a courtesy/pinch runner for Bulldogs.
A trio of talented sophomores return to the Bulldogs after solid freshman years.
Sophomore second baseman Bekah Jones was hobbled by a leg injury at the end of last season, but Hawkins said she is back at full strength. Jones will compete for the leadoff hitting spot.
Sophomore Landry Slider had no problems locking down Stow's starting catcher spot last season. In addition to being a great backstop, she hit .314 as a freshman.
"This kid's got one of the strongest arms that I've coached," Hawkins said. "She's definitely a middle-of-the-order hitter."
Speaking of middle-of-the-order hitters, what does Hawkins think of sophomore Kayla Esterle's power potential?
"She reminds me of Jose Canseco," Hawkins said. "If she puts it together, she's going to be devastating hitter."
Esterle will see time at first base and designated player.
Two other sophomores get the call up from junior varsity. Sophomore Maria Bonfiglio will compete for a starting outfield slot and could see time on the mound.
Finally, sophomore Marie Currier will serve as a backup at third and first base.
Weather permitting, Stow is set to open the season April 1 at 4:30 p.m. at North Royalton.
Tuesday at North Royalton 4:30 p.m. The home opener is set for April 2 at 4:30 p.m. vs. Valley Forge.