After posting their first winning record since 1999 one year ago, the Valparaiso Crusaders return to the diamond in 2010 looking to build upon the momentum that was created last season. Head coach Tracy Woodson’s squad returns 20 players from the team that went 28-24 in 2009, and posted a 12-11 mark in Horizon League play, placing fourth, the highest for the Brown and Gold since joining the conference.
Pitching will be the Crusaders strength entering the season, but Valpo’s offense and defense will be key to the Brown and Gold’s attempt for a first Horizon League title. With the Crusaders hosting the league championship at season’s end, Valpo hopes to build excitement as event approaches, with the goal of earning their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1976.
The Crusader pitching staff had a solid 2009, posting a 4.47 earned run average, best in the Horizon League. Valpo limited opponents to just a .271 batting average, tops in the conference by 19 points.
Valpo’s starting rotation is anchored by junior right-hander Bryce Shafer, who shared the Horizon League lead with seven victories a year ago while ranking fourth in the conference with a 3.59 earned run average. Shafer logged 85.1 innings of work during his sophomore campaign, walking just 38 hitters while fanning 79. Opponents hit just .251 against Shafer in 2009, and he will be called upon to lead the Crusader staff this season.
Southpaw Jon Gulbransen started 13 games as a sophomore, tossing nearly 80 innings for the Brown and Gold. He won five games for Valpo last year in his weekend role, and enters his junior season with eight career victories. A control hurler, Gulbransen walked just 15 batters in 2009.
Another left-hander, Tyler Deetjen, made six midweek starts for the Crusaders a year ago and will attempt to break into the weekend rotation this season. With a 4.41 ERA in nearly 35 innings of work, the sophomore went 2-1 during his rookie campaign, and will be looking to add to his victory total this season.
Austen Siwiec, who pitched out of the bullpen his first three seasons with the Brown and Gold, should start the season in the Crusader rotation after a solid summer season. He has appeared in 46 games during his career at Valpo, and will look to make the transition from middle reliever to starter.
Damon McCormick, an infielder who stepped on the mound for the first time last year, will also vie for a starting spot in the Crusader rotation. He saw action in seven games last year, tossing 11.2 innings, without allowing an earned run. He struck out nine while opponent batters hit a miniscule .061 against McCormick.
Junior college transfer Will Robinson will also look to break into the Valpo rotation after arriving from FullertonCollege. He went 4-4 for the Hornets last year as the team’s number one starter, posting a 5.30 earned run average.
The back end of Valpo’s bullpen is led by closer Jarad Miller. A junior, Miller earned Third Team All-America honors a year ago and has earned several preseason accolades heading into 2010. Miller set a Valpo school record with 17 saves in 2009, and has 26 over his first two years with the Brown and Gold, most in Crusader history. He posted a 2.16 earned run average while allowing opponents to hit just .178 against him in his second year as a closer.
Steve Godawa has served as Miller’s set-up man for the last two years. The right-hander was 3-0 with a 3.86 ERA in 19 appearances out of the bullpen. He came in and threw strikes for the Brown and Gold, walking just four hitters in 23.1 innings of work.
Matt Stucky, Andy Parker, and Justin Frane return for the Crusaders in the middle innings. Stucky, a left-hander, appeared in 18 games for the Crusaders, mainly to face one or two hitters while Parker, at six-foot, seven inches, is an intimidating presence out of the pen. Frane, who came to Valpo as an outfielder, saw action in 16 games last year, registering a 2.13 ERA in 25.1 innings while fanning 13.
Will Hagel looks for his first action with the Brown and Gold after missing two years with arm and shoulder injuries. He will join freshmen Greg Stiller and Matt Carroll who will look for their first collegiate action on the mound this year.
Billy Cribbs enters the season as Valpo’s top returning catcher after starting 19 games for the Brown and Gold in 2009. He will be called upon to take over for Matt Lenski, who hit .406 for the Crusaders in an every day role, tops in the Horizon League. Cribbs hit just .186 in a limited role as a rookie, but as a sophomore will hope to increase his average while proving to be a steady backstop.
Woodson has also brought in junior college transfer Corey Thibault to help out behind the plate this season. He helped Irvine Valley College advance to the Super Regionals in 2008 and had a .419 slugging percentage in 2009. He also threw out a third of would-be base stealers. Freshman Ben Olejniczak also will look for some action at catcher for the Brown and Gold as a local product from Valparaiso High School.
The corners of the Valparaiso infield have a great deal of experience. Senior Kyle Muhlsteff returns at third base for the Brown and Gold. A steady infielder, Muhlsteff hit .256 in his first season with the Crusaders as a junior college transfer, registering 11 doubles and driving in 28 runs. On the other corner, Ryan O’Gara returns for his junior year at first base. A .278 hitter, he made just one error for the Brown and Gold in 2009 in nearly 300 chances.
McCormick patrolled the middle infield last year for the Crusaders when he was not on the hill. The team’s leader with 14 stolen bases, he split time between shortstop and second base as a sophomore.
Freshmen will also be competing for time on the infield, with one more than likely getting the start in the middle infield. Karch Kowalczyk is the career homerun leader for LaSalle-Peru High School in Illinois with 26 and also set the school’s single season record with 61 runs batted in. Andrew Bain was a First Team All-Conference selection during his prep career, and will look to make an impact in his rookie season with the Brown and Gold. Paul Heinkel, who has caught the last two years, will also compete for the second job.
The Crusader outfield is led by a pair of Horizon League All-Newcomer Team selections from 2009. Kyle Gaedele and Steven Scoby both earned the accolades after solid freshman seasons, playing mainly in center and leftfield respectively. Gaedele, who was drafted out of high school, elected to come to Valpo instead. He hit .278 with 12 doubles while stealing eight bases for the Brown and Gold. He was solid on defense as well, committing just two errors in 50 games. Scoby finished second on the team with a .307 batting average while driving home 22 runs.
Frane, as well as David Klein, both came off of the bench for the Crusaders as sophomores. Frane saw more action in the outfield over the first month of the season before moving into a steadier role out of the bullpen. Klein hit .300 in 30 at bats for the Brown and Gold, and was also used as a pinch hitter.
Senior Bo McClendon is the only other returning outfielder on the Valpo roster. Mainly used as a pinch runner last year, he scored four runs for the Crusaders in 12 games. He also reached base in six of his eight plate appearances, either by drawing a walk or being hit by the pitch.
Robbie Robinson joins Thibault as a transfer from Irvine Valley College, where he was a Second Team All-Orange Empire Conference selection. He hit .338 with 23 runs batted in while posting a .446 slugging percentage for the Lasers in 2009, and will look to make an immediate impact in the Valpo lineup.
Coach Woodson has again put together a challenging schedule for the Crusaders which will open February 19-21 at McNeese State for a three-game series. Valpo will play in Jacksonville’s tournament to kick off the annual spring trip, facing the host Dolphins in addition to Richmond and Oklahoma. The Brown and Gold will then play six games in Winter Haven, Fla. before heading to South Carolina for a two-game midweek series.
Valpo will have three-game sets at Gardner-Webb and Southeast Missouri State before opening the Horizon League schedule March 26 at Wright State. Central Michigan will mark the home opener for the Crusaders at Emory G. Bauer Field on March 30, the first of 20 games slated for the Crusaders’ home ball park.
The Crusaders will face Notre Dame, Indiana, and Northwestern at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, site of the 2010 Horizon League Championships, in addition to a road game at Purdue. The home slate comes to a close on May 14 with a doubleheader against Youngstown State before the Crusaders head to the road for the final five games, including a season-ending twin-bill at UIC.
The double elimination Horizon League Championships, hosted by Valparaiso, close the 2010 season May 26-30 at U.S. Steel Yard, with the top six league teams competing in the event.
Despite a challenging schedule, Woodson has his team ready for the challenge in 2010. With an experienced pitching staff looking to pick up where it left off a year ago, the success of the season may lie with the Crusader hitters. If the bats come alive for Valpo, an exciting season should be in store for baseball fans in Northwest Indiana.