The Valparaiso University softball program ascended to even greater heights last season, winning a school-record 30 games under the tutelage of head coach Randy Schneider. The Crusaders led the nation in stolen bases/game while finishing second in their first season in the Horizon League and also set new school records for RBIs, strikeouts, saves and fielding percentage. Now, entering the 2009 campaign, Schneider has the Crusaders positioned to maintain their sport among the league’s best squads.
“We truly believe this team has great potential to compete for a Horizon League championship in 2009,” said Schneider. “Our seven sophomores have improved a great deal since 2008; they are stronger, faster and more in tune with the game. Our freshmen combine to be one of the strongest groups of freshmen that we’ve had in here since I started in 2004, while the juniors and seniors are providing great leadership which brings it all together.”
Schneider returns for his sixth season at the helm of the Crusader program in 2009 after being named the Horizon League Co-Coach of the Year in 2008, guiding Valpo to a second-place league finish after being picked fifth in the preseason. The winningest coach in Crusader softball history, Schneider has won at least 20 games in four of his five seasons, a mark which was reached just three times in the program’s first 22 years.
Assistant coach Amy Wittgenstein also returns for her second year as a part of the Valpo softball program. Joining the team for the first time this year are assistant coach Scott Goodwin and student assistant Sydney Lisy.
The Crusaders enter the 2009 campaign with a bevy of options at their disposal in the circle. Three twirlers return from the 2008 squad, while three freshmen will also look to take turns with the ball for Valpo.
“Overall, we are truly excited about our pitching in 2009,” said Schneider. “Each pitcher presents a different style which bodes well for our overall strategy. In the past few years, we have consistently held an ERA under 3.00 with 2-3 pitchers, and this year we feel confident with five different pitchers.”
Leading the pitching staff entering the year is senior Stephanie Kelly. Kelly posted a 5-4 record in 24 appearances, including 12 starts, last year and finished the season fourth in the Horizon League with a 2.66 ERA. A solid control pitcher, Kelly boasts a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.83/1.
Junior Carrie Franson also is back for the Crusaders in the circle. Franson went 3-2 last year for Valpo in 29.2 innings of work and showcased her power, striking out nearly a batter per inning pitched.
Sophomore Jill Jacobson arrived at Valpo last year having not pitched since her sophomore year of high school, but showed no rust in the circle. As a freshman, she posted a 2.68 ERA in 31.1 innings pitched. Jacobson struck out 31 batters and allowed opposing hitters to hit just .179 off of her.
The trio of newcomers in the circle comes to Valpo with impressive resumes across the board. Shaleigh Jansen pitched at Ottawa Township [Ill.] H.S., where she holds the school’s record for strikeouts in a career with 809. She also earned ICA All-State honors as a senior. Alex Lagesse, a two-time NFCA Third Team All-American, won a state title in 2007 at Beecher [Ill.] H.S. and pitched the national championship game for the Lemont Rockers DD at the ASA 18U tournament in 2008. Sam McGee was named Star-Tribune Scholar-Athlete of the Year after concluding her prep career at Bloomington Jefferson [Minn.] H.S. and earned Most Outstanding Pitcher honors at the 2006 USSAA national tournament while throwing for Minnesota Blizzard ASA team.
“It’s hard to say who is going to emerge as our #1 in 2009, but overall we have depth, continuity and hard work taken care of,” said Schneider. “Stephanie will no doubt be our leader throughout the season – she is too competitive. With the young pitchers pushing her each day, she has become twice the pitcher she was last year. Overall this is a great group to work with.”
Valpo sports a trio of backstops on their roster, two of which return from last year’s squad and one of whom comes in as a freshman.
Junior Whitney Warner made 43 starts last year for the Crusaders, making most of her starts as Valpo’s designated player. A Horizon League Player of the Week honoree, Warner ended the season hitting .288 with 23 RBIs while hitting in the middle of the order for Valpo all year long. She is on pace to challenge the Crusaders’ career RBIs record by the end of her time at Valpo.
Sophomore Lisa DeBruzzi saw limited action in her first year with the Crusaders, earning three starts among her 34 appearances, mostly as a pinch hitter. DeBruzzi got on base at a .391 clip as a freshman while scoring seven runs, and was also a perfect 4-for-4 swiping bases.
Freshman Jordan Rutkowski will look to challenge for playing time behind the plate in her first year as well. A two-time All State selection at Alden [N.Y.] H.S., Rutkowski holds school career records for home runs (32), RBIs (162) and batting average (.519).
Four letterwinners return from last year’s Crusader squad in the infield, but only one starter, as Valpo will have to replace 75% of its starters around the diamond. Three newcomers will also look to contribute playing time on the infield.
“With the graduation of three seniors in our infield from last year, we are obviously coming into the 2009 season with less experience,” said Schneider. “On the other hand, we feel athletically we are stronger with a great deal more range. Heading into the final game of the season last year, we carried a .977 fielding percentage, and I think this group has potential to be a .965+.”
Senior Katie Williams was a defensive stalwart at third base in her first year with the Crusader program, committing just two errors on the season (.977 fielding percentage). She was a part-time starter at the hot corner, and will look to earn the starting job at one of the two corner infield positions this year.
Sophomore Sadie Conner was the other half of the starting platoon at third base in 2008. Conner was the stronger of the duo at the plate, driving in 12 runs in 22 starts on the year. She will also be looking to earn a permanent starting job on the left side of the infield in 2009.
Sophomores Aubrey Sundling and KC Boldt were both used primarily as pinch runners in their first season with the Crusaders. Sundling stole 16 bases on the year, tied for fifth in the Horizon League, and scored 18 runs in 38 appearances, while Boldt saw action in 14 games, scoring five runs for Valpo.
Three freshmen will also get the ability to earn starting jobs on the infield in 2009. Joylyn Ichiyama was a four-year All-Conference honoree at Redondo Union [Calif.] H.S., where she was named the Bay League Most Outstanding Player as a sophomore. Kelsey Phalen was named among the region’s Top 100 players by the Chicago Sun-Times in 2008 and closed her career at Batavia [Ill.] H.S. as a three-time All-Area recipient. Sara Strickland earned All-State accolades four times at Horizon [Ariz.] H.S. and played for one of the nation’s top ASA programs in AZ Hotshots Gold.
“There is not a kid mentioned that we do not feel comfortable with,” said Schneider. “The depth we have makes for competition everyday at practice, but overall these kids want to work together and win together, which makes them pretty special.”
Two three-year starters return for their senior seasons with the Crusaders, while three other outfielders are back as sophomores in 2009.
Senior Karen Korb is Valpo’s career and single-season record holder in stolen bases. Korb led the Horizon League as a junior and finished 15th in the nation with 0.62 steals/game. She also scored 20 runs last year while batting mainly out of the top two spots in the Crusader order.
Fellow senior Ashley Wolter emerged as Valpo’s biggest threat at the plate as a junior, leading the Crusaders in virtually every offensive category. Wolter hit at a .324 clip on the season while scoring 28 runs and driving in 30 runs, good for second-most in a single season in Valpo history. She will be asked to anchor the Crusader batting order in 2009.
Jacobson will look to also start in the outfield when she isn’t taking the ball in the circle for the Crusaders. The dual threat hit .233 as a freshman for Valpo, scoring six runs and going a perfect 4-for-4 on steal attempts.
Fellow sophomores Jamie Weinburger and Jenna Campos also will aim to earn more playing time in the outfield in 2009. Weinburger was used as a pinch-runner for most of her freshman year, and tallied the fifth-most steals in a single season in Valpo history, swiping 17 bases, good for fourth in the Horizon League. Campos made nine appearances off the bench in her first year as a Crusader.
“Our outfield has consistently been strong the past few years, and 2009 should be the best ever, said Schneider. “We are fast and athletic and will field three all-league caliber outfielders in 2009.”
The Crusaders will kick off the season with five games in a three-day span at the Frost Classic in Chattanooga, Tenn. Valpo will then head down to Orlando for their annual set of games at the Rebel Spring Games.
“The Chattanooga tournament will be a good early test,” said Schneider. “It will most likely be our first days outside, but that hasn’t always hurt us in the past. The Chattanooga tournament will challenge our young team, and we will approach the tournament as a learning experience: figure out our lineup, hitting, running, pitching, etc.”
The non-conference slate is highlighted by an April 9 showdown at Notre Dame, a home twinbill against Purdue on April 16, against whom Valpo is 4-3-1 under Schneider, and a home doubleheader with DePaul April 30. Other action outside of league play includes a home doubleheader against IPFW and road twinbills against Ball State, IUPUI and Northern Illinois.
Horizon League play kicks off for Valpo at home on March 21 and 22 against Detroit. The Crusaders will play each league team in a three-game series, with a doubleheader on the first day and a single game on the second day. Wright State, UIC and Cleveland State will also be visiting the Valparaiso University Softball Field, while the Crusaders will hit the road to face Loyola, Youngstown State, Green Bay and Butler. The Horizon League Championships will be held May 7-10 in Indianapolis, Ind., with the winner receiving an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
“After leading the nation in stolen bases with an 84% proficiency last year, we feel even more confident in 2009,” said Schneider. “I truly feel our ability to run bases will put pressure on everyone we play. We feel like our offense has 6-7 potential .300 hitters in 2009. Moreover, having another year of weight training and speed training should put us in a position to break records again this year. We are faster and we are hitting much better during this preseason than ever before.”
“This team is very close,” concluded Schneider. “Moreover, it is the hardest-working team we have had since my arrival in 2004. I credit our senior leadership for that, as our seniors keep it competitive everyday, provide constant competitive and constructive feedback to younger kids and squash any complaining they hear. The result is a positive group of young ladies that work hard every day and are pleasant to be around. I truly feel this group of players will make noise in the Horizon League in 2009.”