Last season saw the Valparaiso softball team finish just one-half game out of the Horizon League regular season championship and advance to the final day of the league tournament for the second consecutive year. With 15 out of 18 letterwinners back from last year’s team, the 2012 iteration of the Crusaders enters this season with their eyes set at the top of the Horizon League standings.
“We have some quality student-athletes in this program right now that will help us reach further towards the goals set forth for this program,” said head coach Jordan Stevens. “Our team has great experience working with some very talented newcomers, which should combine for some exciting softball. Although we have great ability and potential, we have to go out and do something with it and not just expect the pieces to fall in place.”
Stevens returns for his second season at the helm of the Crusaders after enjoying a successful debut season. Stevens guided Valpo to 34 victories in his debut campaign, just one win shy of the program's single-season record. Along the way, the Crusaders enjoyed a 13-game winning streak, setting a new program record in that regard. Stevens led Valpo to within a half-game of the league regular season title while coaching a squad that boasted seven players honored with Horizon League postseason awards.
Stevens welcomes a pair of newcomers as assistants for the 2012 season. Leslie Malerich, a local product of Merrillville H.S. who pitched for the Italian national team in numerous international competitions including the 2004 Olympics after a record-setting career at Florida State, joins the Crusaders this year, as does KC Boldt. Boldt joins the coaching staff following her four-year career as an outfielder for Valpo, a career which culminated last season with an All-League campaign in which she set new single-season records for home runs and RBIs.
An experienced corps of four hurlers, including three seniors, return in the circle for Valpo in 2012 as the Crusaders bring back 100% of their innings from a season ago.
Two of those seniors split the majority of the Crusaders’ innings a season ago, as Alex Lagesse and Sam McGee combined to start 51 of Valpo’s 56 games. Lagesse earned Second Team All-Horizon League honors after posting a 2.61 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 152.2 innings of work. Lagesse also contributed at the plate in limited action, hitting .321 and raising her batting average to .407 in league play.
Meanwhile, McGee finished tied for third in the Horizon League in wins, posting a 17-7 record with a 2.95 ERA. McGee’s 17 victories were just one shy of the Crusaders’ single-season record in the category and leave her just 10 wins shy of Valpo’s all-time record entering her final season.
Rounding out the trio of senior pitchers is Shaleigh Jansen, who has been a relief specialist during her time with the Crusaders. Jansen made 13 of her 17 appearances in relief last season, winning three games and also earning three saves, giving her 11 career saves, second-most in Valpo history. Amanda Bolton closes out Valpo’s pitching staff, as the junior comes off a 2011 season in which she made 10 appearances, earning one win.
“The pitching staff is once again our deepest and most competitive position for time,” said Stevens. “Every one of them could see starts and will play an important role in our success. Our staff of four has worked very hard to get better every day. I've seen some very good improvements in mechanics and movement this spring from all of them.”
The Crusaders welcome back an All-League honoree from a season ago behind the plate, while a prep conference MVP also joins the mix at catcher in 2012.
Jordan Rutkowski earned All-League accolades for the second straight year in 2011 as she was named a First Team All-League performer. The senior set a new Valpo single-season record for RBIs (42), finishing second in the league in the category, and also tied for league-high honors with 38 runs scored. Rutkowski also hit 10 home runs, good for third in the league. She hit at a .394 clip in league-only play, good for fourth in the league, while she also ranked among the league’s top-five in league-only action in on base percentage, runs, stolen bases, RBIs and slugging percentage.
Tarah McShane joins Rutkowski behind the plate this season after a standout high school career at St. Edward Central Catholic [Ill.] H.S. McShane earned All-Conference accolades each of her four seasons, including Player of the Year honors as a senior. She was a four-time Daily Herald All-Area selection and was named to the Courier News All-Area squad twice.
“We have two workhorses behind the plate in Jordan and Tarah,” said Stevens. “Both swing good, powerful bats that will help our lineup. Defensively, they have the ability to shut down other teams’ weapons.”
Seven players are in competition for the four spots around the horn for the Crusaders in 2012.
Kelsey Phalen and Brittany Duncan will be in the mix at first base for Valpo this season. Phalen, a senior, saw the vast majority of play for the Crusaders at first base in 2011, totaling 14 extra-base hits and driving in 27 runs. She posted a .382 on-base percentage and a .400 slugging percentage for Valpo in Horizon League action last year. Meanwhile, Duncan earned All-Metro First Team honors each of her final three seasons at Fairborn [Ohio] H.S. and holds school career records for batting average, hits, runs scored, doubles and RBIs.
On the other side of the diamond at the hot corner will be Jennifer Hermanson and Joylyn Ichiyama. Hermanson saw part-time action for the Crusaders in 2011 in a number of roles, appearing in 26 games while making 12 starts. The junior scored seven runs and tallied five RBIs last season. Meanwhile, Ichiyama returns to the Valpo lineup in 2012 after redshirting last season. The redshirt junior hit .311 in 2010 and raised her average to .392 in league-only play.
Meanwhile, the group of middle infielders includes three players with sophomore eligibility who all earned All-Newcomer Team honors from the Horizon League in their rookie seasons. Jessie Marinec took a medical redshirt last year after suffering a season-ending injury after 15 games. Marinec, an All-Newcomer honoree in 2010, hit .324 with 36 runs scored as a freshman and was hitting .333 with seven runs scored in 15 games before getting hurt last season.
Angie Doerffler tied for the top spot in the Horizon League as a freshman in 2011 with 38 runs scored, tied for fourth-most in a single season in Crusader history, and also tied for league-high honors with 17 runs scored in league play. Starting every game of her rookie year at shortstop, Doerffler registered 129 assists defensively, good for the league lead and third-most in a single year all-time at Valpo. Amanda Wisniewski started most of the 2011 season for the Crusaders at second base, hitting .279 with 23 runs scored and 20 RBIs while tying for team-high honors with 18 walks.
“Getting two players back from a redshirt season will certainly do a lot to help solidify our infield, but they join an already talented group,” said Stevens. “They are very good at making the routine plays and those are the ones we have to get to win. We have good vocal leadership in the dirt this year and that is what will make this group better than before.”
The Crusaders have six players to fill the three outfield positions in the 2012 season, highlighted by a two-time All-Region honoree.
Senior Sara Strickland has earned NFCA Second Team All-Midwest Region honors each of the last two years and has been named to the All-League First Team in each of her three seasons. The Crusaders’ center fielder paced the league in hits (68), doubles (16) and total bases (96), all three marks ranking second in their respective categories in Crusader history. Strickland hit at a .378 clip on the year, good for second in the league and fourth in a single-season all-time at Valpo, and also finished second in the league in on-base percentage (.441). She enters her final season already among the Crusaders’ career top-two all-time in nine different offensive categories.
Four other returnees are amongst the group of Crusader outfielders entering 2012. Junior Tori Brown started 30 of Valpo’s 56 games last season, finishing the season with 14 runs scored, 13 RBIs and seven stolen bases in her part-time action. Fellow junior Hayley Bridwell started 26 of Valpo's 56 games, scoring 16 runs and making her mark on the basepaths with 12 stolen bases. Wisniewski also will see time in the outfield along with her role in Valpo’s middle infield.
Sophomore Amanda Korb saw limited action in her rookie season in 2011, coming off the bench to make nine of her 11 appearances and scoring three runs. The lone newcomer in the outfield in 2012 will be Lindsey Norway, a three-time All-Conference selection at Chicago Christian [Ill.] H.S. who earned All-State Honorable Mention notice as a senior.
“Although this is our most inexperienced position in terms of starts in that position, that doesn't mean they won't be good,” said Stevens. “I give this group a ton of credit, as not only do they work hard to improve their skills, but they are also called upon to run to help improve our infield. They don't ever get a break, but their efforts have resulted in making them one of the best outfield corps around.”
The 2012 season begins with the earliest start in program history, as the Crusaders open this weekend with a trip to Cedar Falls, Iowa to play in the UNI Ramada Dome Tournament Feb. 10-12. Two weekends later, Valpo makes the trek to Chattanooga, Tenn. to compete in the Frost Classic, hosted by UT-Chattanooga.
Then comes the journey through the Southwest, as the Crusaders will take the field in the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California for the first time ever. The trip kicks off at the UTEP Invitational Mar. 2-4, followed by a brief stop for a single game at New Mexico State Mar. 6.
The trek west continues with the Diamond Devil Invitational in Tempe, Ariz., hosted by 2011 national champions Arizona State, Mar. 9-11. The final tournament of the trip is the San Diego Classic II, co-hosted by San Diego and San Diego State. The Crusaders will take on both host institutions, as well as CSU Bakersfield, Long Beach State and UNLV, over a three-day span Mar. 16-18.
Valpo’s return to the Midwest coincides with its home opener at the Valparaiso University Softball Field, where the Crusaders went 10-3-1 in 2011, as it hosts IUPUI for a doubleheader on Mar. 20. Other non-league home action includes a single game against Purdue (Mar. 29) and a twinbill with Western Michigan (May 2). The Crusaders will play a pair of non-league dates on the road as well, traveling to Bowling Green for a doubleheader (Apr. 4) and Notre Dame for a single game (Apr. 18).
The Horizon League schedule, which consists of three-game series against each of the other eight league schools, kicks off Mar. 24-25 as Valpo travels to Detroit. The Crusaders will also take on Wright State, UIC and Cleveland State on the road, while hosting Green Bay, Youngstown State, Butler and Loyola. The regular season ends May 6 at Cleveland State, with the 2012 Horizon League Championship scheduled for May 9-12 at the regular season champion. The winner of the league tournament earns an automatic bid to the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
“Our team will be challenged early, often and throughout our 2012 schedule,” said Stevens. “This group has the ability to compete day in and day out regardless of the opponent. People will look at some of the names on the slate as a big thing, but we are only concerned about playing to our highest level and finding teams that are going to help us become prepared for winning the Horizon League tournament.”