Throughout the offseason, the O'Fallon Panthers were reminded how much talent they had lost and how few experienced players they had returning.
That motivation pushed the Panthers all year and no one helped push them harder than senior Sam Hopkins, the 2012 Belleville News-Democrat Large-School (Class 3A-4A) Baseball Player of the Year.
When the dust of another spring baseball season settled, O'Fallon finished 30-8 and won its third straight Southwestern Conference title. The Panthers also won another regional before losing to Minooka in the Class 4A Bloomington Sectional championship game.
"We knew we lost a lot of guys that had a lot of success last year, but we also knew that we could come back," said Hopkins, an honorable mention Louisville Slugger All-American who has signed with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville as a pitcher.
"We knew we'd gain experience and we did, we grew up a lot over the season and matured a lot. We built a pretty great team just working day-in and day-out together."
Learning to be more economical on the mound by pitching to contact, Hopkins turned in a 11-1 season and 1.00 ERA with two saves. He struck out 61 in 72 innings, holding opposing hitters to a .207 average.
In two seasons, he compiled a 21-3 mark on the mound and finished his career with 23 wins.
"I'll always remember pitching for O'Fallon," Hopkins said. "That was awesome, but I guess I consider myself an SIUE pitcher now, too."
Hopkins also hit .287 with six doubles and three triples and was tied for second on the team with 20 RBIs.
"He was just a guy you knew you could put out there on the mound and he was going to give you a chance to win every time," O'Fallon coach Jason Portz said. "You don't get that out of every guy. You know he's going to control the game and compete."
"He certainly put together a great two-year span for us and not only as a pitcher, but what a solid player he was for us in center field."
Portz said some of his favorite moments the past two seasons were three wins over another of the area's top programs, Edwardsville.
He was the winning pitcher this spring when the Panthers eliminated Edwardsville from the postseason with a 3-2 sectional semifinal victory.
"I think beating Edwardsville three times was pretty impressive in my eyes," he said. "We always look up to them and they're a pretty respected program. It was a lot of fun."
Portz came away with a lasting memory as well.
"I'm not going to forget that look on his face when we beat Edwardsville in the sectional," Portz said of Hopkins. "The picture that was in the paper is something that will stick in my head for the rest of my career when I think about Sam Hopkins.
"It was how much joy he got about winning and for his teammates. That picture with him and (catcher Brenndon) Tindall hugging, the look on his face and the excitement for his teammates ... that's something that will stick in my mind."
Hopkins' father, Dave Hopkins, was a catcher for O'Fallon's team that reached the state tournament in 1976. Sam Hopkins' brother, Sam Kirchoff, also played for the Panthers and graduated from O'Fallon in 2004.
"I've always been around it," Sam Hopkins said. "I've always known Coach Portz and all the coaches, so it was crazy to be in the program and to be out there playing."
The younger Hopkins never strayed far from the baseball fundamentals he learned from his father, who also was his coach during his younger years.
"My dad kept me humble and taught me a lot about the game,' Sam Hopkins said. "I can't thank him enough for that. My dad's been my best friend throughout this and he's been a great coach."
While being thankful for winning Player of the Year honors, Hopkins was able to put the award in perspective.
"It's awesome and it feels great because you've put in a ton of work in the offseason with your teammates and coaches," he said.
Portz believes Hopkins' success will continue at the Division I level.
"I think he'll be fine. He's just going to have to add some strength," Portz said. "Everybody talked about him being a little undersized and it was more of a running joke with him and the coaching staff because we knew it got under his skin a bit.
"As long as he continues to work really hard in the weight room -- and he's always had good mechanics -- he'll be in good shape."
Coach of the Year
Triad's Jesse Bugger grew up playing in a successful program at Edwardsville High and took what he had learned into his first head coaching job at Triad.
That hard work and attention to fundamentals and detail paid off this season when the Triad Knights made their first trip to the Class 3A state baseball tournament.
Triad finished fourth and state and ended up 31-10, also winning the Mississippi Valley Conference title with a 10-0 league mark.
The Knights won 106 games over the last four years and reached the super-sectional three times during that span.
Bugger saw a bright future for the current graduate seniors years ago.
"I remember talking to them when they were little kids in our baseball camp," Bugger said earlier this season. "The expectations were by the time they got out of here they needed to make at least one trip to state. The kids bought into it at an early age and have been really working towards it for a long time."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at email@example.com or 239-2454.