The 2003 softball season will have a different look to it this year as the Valparaiso University Crusaders move to the new Valparaiso University Softball Field after 21 years of playing at Kirchhoff Park.
Head coach Jerry Stieger's team returns 16 letterwinners for the upcoming season and has added three talented freshmen as the Crusaders look to return to the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament after a two-year absence.
Valpo, which was 14-31 overall and 4-16 in the Mid-Con one year ago, doubled its win total from the previous season last year and with four seniors on the roster should show even more improvement this season.
The Brown and Gold return two of their top pitchers from last season. Sophomore Brittany Attebery led the Crusaders in ERA allowing just 2.00 earned runs per contest in 21 appearances, mostly in relief. She will share time in the circle with Amanda Gilbertson. Gilbertson hurled a no-hitter against St. Thomas Aquinas in her first start last year and Stieger hopes for the same production this year. Senior Jessica Radtke made her first appearance on the rubber last season and should see more action in the circle for the Crusaders in 2003. Freshman Erica Dahlmeier should also see action hurling the ball this year.
Behind the plate Valpo has a pair of junior catchers that provide the team with offense. Karen Constien finished sixth in the Mid-Con in hitting last year with her .318 batting average. She led the Crusaders with 41 hits and added a pair of home runs. Classmate Monica Rowan added pop to the Valpo line-up hitting three homers in just 67 at-bats. Freshman Laurie Grabiak will also look to break into the line-up either behind the plate or in the outfield.
Valpo returns nearly its entire infield for the coming season. Tricia Speziale returns to the line-up after missing last season with a knee injury and should provide stability at third base. A patient hitter, she led the team in drawing walks in 2001 and also has the ability to hit the long ball.
Sophomores Amy Mitchell and Kelly Silvey both saw time on the left-side of the infield last year and will compete for playing time again in their second campaign with the Crusaders. Silvey saw action at third base and shortstop last year, while Mitchell has speed and can play first base as well.
Tana Barnes had her most productive season at the plate last year and heads into her senior season looking to continue to drive the ball. After playing shortstop for a majority of the year in 2002, she may see action at first base this year, helping to fill the Crusaders' void due to graduation. Second baseman Corey Burns will again help solidify the right-side of the infield. The team's leading fielder in 2002 with a .977 fielding percentage, she also had a nine-game hitting streak at the plate.
Gilbertson could also see action at first base in addition to pitching this season. Rowan may see time on the infield as well, while a pair of freshmen, Dahlmeier and Kelly Smoker, will both look for playing time on the infield for Stieger's team in 2003.
Valpo's outfield remains in tact from 2002 heading into the season. Senior Ali Bultman provides the Crusaders' speed in centerfield, while Stephanie Reinke and Bridget Schwoegler both saw a great deal of action in left and rightfield last year. Bultman tied for the team lead in stolen bases as a junior, while Reinke tied for the team-high with 14 runs scored. Schwoegler legged out a pair of triples and now has four for her career.
Janine Kurpiel, who saw time behind the plate in a reserve role for the Brown and Gold last year, moves to the outfield in her third season with the Crusaders. Danielle Coleman and Nicole Dubs also can play the outfield for Valpo. Coleman saw action in 11 games for the Brown and Gold as a freshman, mostly in a utility role. Dubs did not play last year after serving as a utility player for the Crusaders in 2001, but returns to the squad this season.
Valpo's schedule is a difficult one. The Crusaders open on March 3 against Albany on their spring trip in Florida, while not beginning Mid-Con action until April 4-5 at home against Southern Utah. Valpo's first game at Valparaiso University Softball Field is slated for March 27 against Loyola (Ill.). The Brown and Gold's non-conference slate also includes doubleheaders against powers Notre Dame, DePaul, and Illinois.
If the Crusaders can get timely hitting, play solid defense, and produce quality pitching, Valpo will look to contend in the Mid-Continent Conference.