Trailing by six with two innings to play and by four with one out in the ninth, Valparaiso rallied with a monumental comeback, scoring seven times in the final inning, to defeat Western Illinois 13-10 on Thursday afternoon at Alfred D. Boyer Field in Macomb, Ill. in the opening round of the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament.
The Crusaders allowed nine unearned runs early in the game, but continually fought back. The victory was the first opening round victory since 1998 and just the second since the tournament went to the double elimination format in 1985.
Trailing 10-6 going into the ninth, Valpo mounted its uprising. Ryan Manthei (Kenosha, Wis./Tremper H.S.) led off the inning with a single up the middle and Jason Brunelli (Greenfield, Wis./Greenfield H.S.) followed with a double to the gap in left-center. The Leathernecks changed pitchers, and Rob Johnson got the first hitter on a fly out. Brian Rzpeka (South Bend, Ind./Penn H.S.) singled to center to start the comeback, driving in Manthei. Dallas Cawiezell (Long Grove, Iowa/North Scott H.S.) hit a pinch hit triple to right-center to cut the deficit to 10-9. After a strikeout, Jeff Rickert (Hamilton, Ohio/Fairfield H.S.) singled to shallow center to knot the game at 10. Following a walk to Michael Arensdorff (Eldridge, Iowa/North Scott H.S.), Zach Rodeghero (New Lenox, Ill./Providence Catholic H.S.) hit a three-run homer over the centerfield fence to put Valpo in front for the first time on the day, and cap the inning.
Arensdorff crossed the plate for the third time on the homer, giving him 157 for his career, one shy of the Valparaiso school record. He also doubled for the 17th time on the season in the eighth inning, giving him 57 for his career, also just one shy of the school mark.
Cawiezell then pitched the ninth, striking out a pair, to earn his seventh save of the season and 10th of his career, moving him into sole possession of third place on the Crusaders' career save list.
A two-out error in the third inning proved costly for the Crusaders, leading to six unearned Leatherneck runs. With two outs, back-to-back singles and an error loaded the bases. Matt Newquist doubled to left-center to drive in the first three runs of the game. Another double by Jake Corley and a single by Kyle Surprenaunt made it 5-0 before T.J. Kistner drove home the final run of the inning with a triple to right.
Valpo immediately started chipping away at the lead. Rickert led off the fourth with a single and Arensdorff followed with the same. Rodeghero drove home the first Crusader run with a single to left-center. With two outs, Josh Piazza (Glenview, Ill./Notre Dame H.S.) registered the fourth single of the inning to drive in Arensdorff, cutting the deficit to 6-2.
Jake Corley's single through a drawn in infield in the fifth brought home Travis Check to increase Western Illinois' lead to 7-2. Brett Pendall's double in the sixth added another unearned run to the board as well. Valpo had chances in both the fourth and fifth, but stranded three runners in scoring position during those frames.
The Crusaders took advantage of runners in the seventh. John Giusti (Coventry, R.I./Coventry H.S.) and Arensdorff both singled. With two outs, Manthei doubled to the left-centerfield gap to plate both runners, cutting Valpo's deficit to 8-4. The Leathernecks added two more runs, one unearned, in the seventh, on a sacrifice fly and a two-out error.
The Brown and Gold offense continued to battle back in the eighth. With two outs, Josh Wallace (Bellefountaine, Ohio/Bellefountaine H.S.) singled and John Giusti (Coventry, R.I./Coventry H.S.) followed with a ground-rule double to center, putting runners on second and third. Rickert followed with a single off the pitcher, his third hit of the day. Arensdorff followed with an RBI double down the leftfield line, cutting the Western Illinois lead to 10-6, setting the stage for the final inning.
Harvey Yergin (Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy) worked 5.1 innings for the Crusaders in the starting assignment, and did not allow an earned run. Austen Siwiec (Aurora, Ill./Marmion Academy) pitched a scoreless eighth to earn his first collegiate victory (1-0). Johnson (6-6) suffered the loss for Western Illinois, allowing five runs and four hits in his one inning of work.
Rickert led Valpo's 20-hit attack on the day with a 4-for-6 performance while Arensdorff and Manthei each had three hits a piece. Surprenaunt went 3-for-5 to lead Western Illinois, as the hosts banged out 11 hits of their own on the afternoon.
Valparaiso (22-32) will advance to face Oral Roberts (38-15), the tournament's top seed, on Friday afternoon at 1:15 p.m. in the winner's bracket. Western Illinois (31-25) will face Centenary (26-30) in the loser's bracket at 10 a.m. The Golden Eagles defeated the Gents 20-0 in the first game on Thursday.