BARBERTON — They did some spectacular things despite playing with heavy hearts.
But the magical, emotional late-season ride for the Lady Bulldogs has come to an end.
The fourth-seeded Stow-Munroe Falls softball team’s season concluded with an 11-5 loss to second-seeded Brunswick in the Barberton Division I district title game.
The contest took place Thursday at the Barberton Sports Complex. With the loss, the Lady Bulldogs, who reached a district title game for the first time since 2004, finished 16-7.
The Lady Blue Devils, on the other hand, advanced to regional play for the first time since 2010. Brunswick enters the Sweet Sixteen with a sparkling 24-5 record.
The Stow players and coaches had the near impossible task of playing without a valued family member.
Former head coach Doug Hawkins, who led the Lady Bulldogs for more than a decade and could be found parked next to the Stow dugout at a number of games this spring, recently passed away after a bout with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
It certainly was difficult to focus on the task at hand, but the Lady Bulldogs played some stellar ball and got to the title contest with a stunning 8-3 victory over top-seeded Walsh Jesuit Wednesday.
"It was a great to beat Walsh," Stow senior shortstop Brittany Hoopingarner said. "It was a great season. We had a lot of fun and we were really close. We came together as a team. We did it for him (Hawkins)."
Hoopingarner, who plans to continue her academic and softball careers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, did her part in the final high school game of her career.
She had a pair of doubles and a triple and scored two runs.
Hoopingarner was the catalyst for the Lady Bulldogs, who trailed 7-0 early. She got things going with a pair of one-out extra base hits in the fourth and fifth innings, respectively. As a result, Stow, which found its offense after a slow start, rallied to cut its deficit to 7-5.
"We know it’s not over until it’s over," first-year Stow head coach Allison Lewandowski said. "They showed so much heart and they believed in one another."
But some shaky defense and the Lady Blue Devils’ powerful offense proved to be way too much too overcome.
Brunswick scored a pair of runs in the first inning and then sent 10 batters to the plate in the second to score five more times.
Lady Bulldogs’ junior right-hander Macie Bell (7-2) started, was replaced by sophomore right-hander Katie Kelly for two batters and then returned to the circle to finish the game.
Lady Blue Devils’ senior left fielder Veronica Molnar had a run-scoring single in the first. Brunswick also got an unearned run in the inning.
The Lady Blue Devils had five hits and took advantage of two walks, a wild pitch and aggressive baserunning to take complete control in the second.
Senior shortstop Gabbi Campbell, Brunswick’s leadoff hitter, and senior third baseman Delani Sopko, the cleanup batter, had run-scoring singles and Molnar had a sacrifice fly.
The Lady Blue Devils also stole four bases in the first two innings.
But just when it looked like their season seemed to be on the verge of extinction, that’s when the Lady Bulldogs found a little bit of magic.
Stow had five hits in the fourth to score four runs. The Lady Bulldogs started the inning with four straight hits, including back-to-back-back doubles by Hoopingarner, senior third baseman Hanna Ingram and senior catcher Gillian Holcomb.
Freshman left fielder Rachel Edmondson, who bats ninth in the order, concluded the rally with a run-scoring single to cut Stow’s deficit to 7-4.
The Lady Bulldogs added another run in the fifth, thanks to a one-out triple by Hoopingarner, and a run-scoring single by Ingram.
However, Stow did not get another run across home plate and left the bases loaded.
At that point, freshman left-hander Rebecca Zemanek (9-1) rediscovered her rhythm and the Lady Blue Devils’ offense woke up from its brief slumber.
Of course, the Lady Bulldogs didn’t help themselves when they took the field.
Brunswick, which smacked 12 hits, put the game out of reach during its final trips to the plate, thanks to four Stow errors.
Campbell smacked a double and later scored in the fifth and then drove in another run with a single in the sixth. She also dazzled in the field with a diving stop on a hot shot in the hole and then threw the runner out from her knees at first in the seventh.
Freshman right fielder Alyssa Olah also had a run-scoring single for the Lady Blue Devils in the seventh.
The Lady Bulldogs, who finished with 10 hits, said goodbye to Hoopingarner, Ingram, Holcomb, right fielder Rachel Mosko, first baseman Clara Borsilli and bench players Katelyn McDowell and Lauren Keyser.
"They were an incredible group," Lewandowski said.
If the Stow players and coaches had their way, they would have preferred to have their former coach rooting for them next to their dugout throughout the season.
While that is something they will never get to experience again, Lewandoski certainly appreciated how inspired her players were when they received the devastating news.
"I’m very proud of them," she said. "They came back stronger. They took it to a whole new level after we heard about Doug. They exceeded all of my expectations and I can’t wait to come back next year."
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, firstname.lastname@example.org or @FrankAceto_RPC.