A program on the rise, the Valparaiso University softball team took another step forward last year, winning a school-record 35 games and advancing to the final day of the Horizon League Championship. Many of the same faces are back for the Crusaders in 2011, as 15 of 18 letterwinners return this season.
But one new face will be patrolling the third-base coach’s box this year, as Jordan Stevens enters his first year as head coach of the Valpo program. Stevens has an experienced squad at his disposal, as eight starters and both primary starting pitchers return from a squad that set single-season records for hits, at bats, runs scored, total bases, runs scored, RBIs, doubles, home runs, slugging percentage, saves and pitching strikeouts in 2010.
Stevens, who was officially named the program’s new head coach on Sept. 17, 2010, arrived at Valpo after guiding Union [N.Y.] College to its most successful season in school history in 2010. Part of the Liberty League’s Coaching Staff of the Year, Stevens guided Union to a school-record tying 32 victories last year en route to its first regular season title since 2005. The Dutchwomen went on to win their first-ever league tournament championship, qualified for the ECAC Division III Upstate Championship as the top overall seed and won that title as well.
Prior to his stint at Union, Stevens spent a year as an assistant coach at the University of Rhode Island, working with the pitching staff and helping to lower the Rams’ ERA by 1.72 runs in 2009. He also spent two years as an assistant at Niagara University, working primarily with the Purple Eagles at the plate, helping the team to single-season school records for batting average, hits and home runs during his time there.
Rachel Folden returns for her second season as an assistant coach, working with the Crusaders’ pitchers, catchers and outfielders. Folden, who helped the Crusader pitching staff lower its ERA by over a run a season ago, continued playing for the Chicago Bandits of the NPF this past summer and was named the league’s Offensive Player of the Year and earned a spot on the All-NPF team at catcher. First-year graduate assistant Lynn Anderson, who played collegiate softball at Wisconsin, works directly with Valpo’s infielders. Strength and conditioning coach Steve Bartholomew is also back for his second season on the Crusader softball staff.
Valpo returns nearly all its innings pitched from the 2010 squad which finished the year ranked second in the Horizon League with a 2.24 team ERA.
Among the returnees in the circle for the Crusaders is junior Alex Lagesse, who closed last season with a bang. Lagesse earned a spot on the Horizon League All-Tournament Team after tossing 31 innings over five games, posting a 0.90 ERA while striking out 30 batters and walking just seven. Lagesse, who also earned three Pitcher of the Week accolades from the league office in 2010, closed the year 15-12 with a 2.07 ERA, ranking third in the league in both wins and ERA. She also moved into third on Valpo’s single-season charts in wins and strikeouts (133).
Fellow junior Sam McGee provides another quality arm in the circle for the Crusaders. A Second Team All-Horizon League honoree in 2010, McGee finished her sophomore year 14-6 with a 2.17 ERA, placing fourth in the league in both wins and ERA and moving into fourth on Valpo’s single-season chart in wins. McGee ranked among the nation’s best in fewest walks surrendered as well, giving up just 25 free passes in 126 innings of work to place 34th nationally.
Junior Shaleigh Jansen moved into a role as a relief ace in 2010, making 27 of her 32 appearances in relief. Jansen set a new Crusader single-season record with eight saves, ranking second nationally in the category. Jansen finished the year 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA, finishing ninth in the league in ERA, and lowered her ERA to 2.37 in Horizon League action. Rounding out the Valpo pitching staff is redshirt sophomore Amanda Bolton, who saw action in six games in the circle last year and posted a 2.62 ERA.
“Our experienced and well-rounded pitching staff is poised to lead this team from the circle,” said Stevens. “This group has continued to get better and better every day in practice, and each have the ability to rack up wins. Healthy competition all pre-season has done them well and all will continue to battle for time.”
The one position without the incumbent returning in 2011 for the Crusaders, Valpo still has one returnee who gained experience at the position in 2010, along with another who took to the position during the fall season.
Junior Jordan Rutkowski made 15 of her 53 starts a year ago behind the dish en route to earning Second Team All-Horizon League accolades. Rutkowski hit .340 in 2010 with 28 runs scored and 37 RBIs, second-most in a single season in Valpo history. The junior picked up 28 walks, also second-best in a single year by a Crusader, and ended the year fourth in the league in on-base percentage (.447). Rutkowski hit .447 a season ago in games in which she was catching.
Senior Sadie Conner will also see the first action of her career behind the plate this season. Conner, who started working behind the dish this fall, was a First Team All-Horizon League honoree a season ago at third base after hitting .408 in league games. She ranked among the league's top-ten in a number of categories in league-only games, while overall finishing the season eighth in the league in home runs (8) and ninth in total bases (92) while hitting .331 and slugging .535.
"We are very pleased with what we enter the season with behind the plate," said Stevens. "Our vocal catchers have a great understanding of the game and do a nice job of working with our pitching staff. Offensively, they are going to be very strong."
A young group of Crusaders will look to man the infield positions for Valpo in 2011.
Junior Kelsey Phalen started all 56 games for the Crusaders at first base last season, setting a new Valpo single-season record with 411 putouts. Offensively, Phalen hit .301 with 34 runs scored, fifth in a single season in Valpo history, and 31 RBIs, tied for third-most in a year all-time.
Sophomore Jennifer Hermanson, who saw action all over the field as a rookie, will be in the mix at the corner infield spots in 2011 after hitting .242 with 12 runs scored and 14 RBIs last year. Freshman Amanda Korb, a four-year starter at Lutheran H.S. of Indianapolis, also will look to play at the corners. Lagesse and Conner could also see time at first base, while Rutkowski will be in the mix at third base as well.
Sophomore Jessie Marinec is the top returnee for the Crusaders in 2011 in the middle infielder. Marinec started 53 games as a rookie at shortstop and earned a spot on the Horizon League All-Newcomer Team, hitting .324 with 36 runs scored, the fourth-most in a single season in program history. Marinec, who also drove in 23 runs and tallied 11 doubles, raised her batting average to .351 in league games.
Freshmen Angie Doerffler and Amanda Wisniewski should also see action in the middle infield. Doerffler was a Second Team All-State honoree as a senior at Concordia Lutheran [Ind.] H.S. and earned All-Area honors each of her final three seasons, while Wisniewski twice earned All-Conference accolades at Huntley [Ill.] H.S. Junior Joylyn Ichiyama, Valpo's regular starter at second base last season, will be redshirting this season.
"A young, yet confident, group will all fight for time on the infield this year," said Stevens. "They are all pure athletes who all have the capability of producing at a high level. There is a tremendous amount of upside with this group."
An experienced corps of athletes will be roaming the outfield for the Crusaders in 2011.
The group of outfielders includes a pair of seniors. Jill Jacobson started 42 games in the outfield in 2010 for Valpo and scored 15 runs on the season. Two years ago, Jacobson hit .315 for Valpo and raised her average to .350 in league play. Fellow senior KC Boldt appeared in 34 games a year ago, starting on 10 occasions and hitting .282 for the season with 11 runs scored.
Junior Sara Strickland continued her standout career last year, earning First Team All-League honors for the second straight season while also being named to the NFCA Second Team All-Midwest Region. Strickland set new Valpo single-season records for hits and total bases while cracking the Crusaders’ single-season top-fives in seven other categories. She led the league in league-only play in both batting average (.446) and on-base percentage (.526) and ranked among the league’s top-ten overall in ten different categories.
A pair of sophomores also gained valuable experience in the outfield as rookies. Tori Brown started 38 of her 50 appearances as a freshman, hitting .255 and slugging 451 while scoring 16 runs and driving in 19. Meanwhile, Hayley Bridwell started 14 of the season’s first 16 games, hitting leadoff 12 times, before suffering an injury that limited her to pinch-running the rest of the year. Bridwell hit .333 in her limited action at the plate and also stole nine bases while scoring 19 runs. Freshman Kelly Belisle, an All-Conference selection at Anoka [Minn.] H.S., adds depth for the Crusaders in the outfield.
“This group of outfielders will be a great strength for us, both defensively and offensively,” said Stevens, “Speed, aggressiveness and athleticism are the trademarks of these six. What we lack in depth in the outfield has been made up for by the strong work ethic of each of these athletes and our senior leadership.”
The experience of the Crusader squad will be needed right off the bat right off the bat in 2011, as 12 of Valpo’s first 16 games are against squads which won at least 30 games a season ago, including six opponents who went to the NCAA Tournament.
The Crusaders kick off the 2011 season at the Cyclone Indoor Invitational in Ames, Iowa this weekend. Valpo faces Creighton, a tournament team in 2010, and Western Illinois on its first day of competition Saturday before playing host Iowa State twice to close tournament play.
Two weeks later, Valpo’s annual spring trip to Florida begins at the Hatter Classic, hosted by Stetson Feb. 25-27. Also at the tournament will be Charleston Southern and Bethune-Cookman, the latter of which went to the NCAA Tournament last season. The Crusaders then head to UCF on March 1, playing the host Knights as well as Michigan, which ended the 2010 regular season ranked #2 nationally and advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals, in single games.
From there, Valpo goes to Gainesville to play in Florida’s Lipton Invitational. The host Gators have advanced to the Women’s College World Series each of the last three seasons and closed last regular season ranked #5 nationally. Also at Florida’s tournament will be North Dakota State and Syracuse, both NCAA Tournament teams in 2010, as well as Gardner-Webb and Pacific. The Crusaders close their spring break trip with six games at the Rebel Spring Games March 8-11.
More challenging tests await the Crusaders in non-league action back home, highlighted by a visit from DePaul to the Valparaiso University Softball Field on April 28. The Blue Demons last visited the Crusaders’ campus during regular season play in 2006. Other home non-league games include single games with Michigan State and IPFW, as well as a doubleheader against local rival Purdue. The non-league road schedule features a single game at Notre Dame May 3 against an Irish squad that finished the 2010 regular season ranked #24 in the nation, while Valpo will also travel to play IUPUI and Northern Illinois in doubleheaders.
The 2011 Horizon League slate begins at home on March 26-27, when the Crusaders host Detroit for a three-game series. Valpo will also host UIC, Wright State and Cleveland State during league play, while traveling to Loyola, Butler, Youngstown State and Green Bay. The top six teams in the league regular season standings advance to the 2011 Horizon League Championship May 12-14, hosted by the top seed. The winner of the tournament receives an automatic bid to the 2011 NCAA Tournament.
With loads of experience returning at most positions on the diamond, the 2011 Valparaiso softball team is poised to take another step forward and challenge for a Horizon League championship.