As the Valparaiso University baseball team gets set to take to the diamond for the 2009 season, the Crusaders will be looking to build upon last year’s third place finish at the Horizon League Tournament. Valpo is coming off of a 21-35 season overall one year ago and an 8-13 mark in Horizon League play, finishing sixth during the regular season.
The postseason is where head coach Tracy Woodson’s squad came together, winning three games in the double elimination event, and advancing to the loser’s bracket championship game before falling to Milwaukee.
Woodson returns 22 letterwinners from a year ago, including six starting position players and four starting pitchers, as well as six regulars out of the bullpen. He has added six freshmen and a junior college transfer to the roster in hopes of moving up into the top half of the standings this season. This year the Brown and Gold was picked to finish fifth in the preseason coaches’ poll.
Valpo returns four starters from last year’s squad, including a pair of sophomores that are projected to be at the front end of the rotation. The Crusaders also have a large share of the bullpen returning, including their set-up man and closer, which should help the Brown and Gold move through the late innings.
Sophomore Bryce Shafer will lead the pitching staff in 2009 after starting 13 games as a rookie, leading the staff. Shafer tossed more than 70 innings in his first year with the Brown and Gold, and led Valpo with four victories. He is coming off of a solid summer season as well, where the right-hander was named the Pitcher of the Year in the Central Illinois Collegiate League.
Sophomore left-hander Jon Gulbransen enters the season number two in the rotation after starting 12 games during his freshman campaign. His 5.37 earned run average as a rookie is the lowest of all Valpo’s returning starters, and he struck out a team-leading 52 hitters one year ago.
A pair of seniors also returns to the Crusader rotation looking to wrap up their careers on a high note. John Snelten rebounded in 2008, starting 11 games for the Brown and Gold after missing all of 2007 with an elbow injury. He is taking advantage of his redshirt season, and adds another right-hander to the Valpo starting squad in his fifth year with the Crusaders.
Alex Berry started nine contests for the Brown and Gold a year ago after transferring from Olney Central College. Valpo’s fourth returning starter, he will be handed the ball on some weekends as well as for midweek appearances.
At the back end of Valpo’s bullpen, sophomore Jared Miller returns as the Crusader closer. As a freshman, he recorded nine saves, a mark that already has moved him into a tie for fourth on Valpo’s all-time list. In 31 innings, he allowed just one homerun and opponents hit just .243 against him.
Steve Godawa, who was named to the Horizon League’s All-Newcomer Team as a freshman, will again be Valpo’s late inning set-up man. Godawa led the Crusaders with 27 appearances and posted a 3-3 record out of the bullpen, including a win against Butler in the opening round of the Horizon League Tournament.
“Having Shafer and Gulbransen as sophomores gives us a definite anchor for our staff,” said Woodson. “With a little more experience out of the bullpen with Miller and Godawa, we still need others to step up. That will be the big key for us this season.”
Valpo also returns four others to the bullpen, which will be a key component in determining the success of the season. Senior Collin Johnson had a team-leading 1.80 earned run average in 11 appearances while fellow right-hander Austen Siwiec was handed the ball 25 times on the year. Sophomore right-hander Andy Parker and junior southpaw Matt Stucky will also be called upon to provide relief late in games.
Valpo’s pitching staff will also be bolstered by the return of Matt Evans, who is returning from an elbow injury that forced him to sit out the 2008 season. As a freshman two years ago, Evans posted a 2.92 ERA and made five starts on his way to a 3-3 mark.
True freshman Tyler Deetjen, will look to make an impact on the pitching staff. Deetjen is a 6’4” left-hander from Saint Charles, Ill. who earned All-Upstate 8 Conference and All-Area honors as a senior.
The only catcher on the Crusader roster with collegiate experience is Matt Lenski, who started 40 games for Valpo a year ago after arriving as a junior college transfer. He threw out 15 would-be base stealers in his first year behind the plate for the Brown and Gold while hitting .240 offensively.
Freshman Billy Cribbs will share catching duties with Lenski in his rookie season. A First Team Class A All-State selection for Rochester High School in Michigan, Cribbs was the school’s all-time hits leader.
“Lenski and Cribbs will be our anchors behind the plate,” said Woodson. “I am hoping they can stop opponents running games by giving us the threat of throwing guys out.”
The third catcher on the Valpo roster is Paul Heinkel, who sat out last season as a redshirt.
Valpo’s infield will be a young, but talented one for the Crusaders in 2009. The Crusaders will be without Brett Bivens this season, as he had knee surgery in the offseason. Bivens hit .295 as a sophomore one year ago and was named to the Horizon League’s All-Tournament Team.
The sophomore tandem of Andrew Quinnette and Ryan O’Gara are expected to platoon at first base for the Brown and Gold this season. Quinnette hit .304 as a rookie while driving in 33 runs in 43 starts. O’Gara started 22 games for Valpo as a freshman, committing just one error in the field.
At second base, sophomore Damon McCormick is expected to slide over after playing shortstop during his freshman campaign. He started 40 games for the Brown and Gold as a rookie.
The left side of the Crusader infield could be made up entirely of newcomers this season. Ryan Shober is the leading candidate to play shortstop for the upcoming season, his first with the Brown and Gold. An All Mid-Suburban League and All-Area selection for Fremd High School in Illinois, he will combine with McCormick to make up a very youthful double play combination in the middle of the field.
Kyle Muhlsteff is expected to step in as the every day third baseman for Valpo in 2009. He is a transfer from Orange Coast Junior College where he hit .336 and drove in 18 runs in 39 games as a sophomore.
“I think we will be able to catch the ball in the infield this year”, Woodson said. “Our middle infield, with McCormick and Shober, may be one of the best double play combinations the school has ever had. Our range across the field will allow us to get to more balls this year.”
Last year’s third baseman, Josh Wallace, is expected to move to the designated hitters role this season. The junior hit .313 last season and led the Crusaders with 11 homeruns and 48 runs batted in while slugging .538.
“Wallace will hit in the four spot to drive in runs for us,” said Woodson.
Valpo’s outfield will be a blend of experience and youth as the season opens up. Dan DeBruin, a fifth-year senior, will lead the way after starting 53 games one year ago. The Crusader leadoff hitter, he hit .338 while posting a .410 on base percentage.
A pair of freshmen, Kyle Gaedele and Steven Scoby, will make up the other two-thirds of the starting outfield. Gaedele, a 32nd round pick by the Tampa Bays in the 2008 Major League Baseball draft, passed up turning pro to play for the Crusaders. He hit .510 during conference play last year for Rolling Meadows High School in Illinois and was an Honorable Mention All-State selection.
Scoby, a Second Team All-State selection in Michigan, holds Delton Kellogg’s school records for career hits, doubles, runs batted in, and stolen bases. He will look to patrol a corner outfield position this season.
A pair of sophomores will also see action in the outfield for the Brown and Gold in 2009. Justin Frane hit .266 in 32 games as a freshman while slugging .436. David Klein also got a taste of collegiate baseball last year, appearing in 16 games, and will look to make more of an impact this year.
Junior Bo McClendon also saw more playing time as a sophomore than he did as a rookie, and will look to contribute even more this season.
“We have four guys that can run balls down in the outfield,” said Woodson. “Dan, as our leadoff hitter, will be a key to the offense getting on track.”
Valparaiso’s 2009 schedule is yet another challenge put forth by Woodson. The Crusaders will open with 21 straight games on the road, beginning with a three-game weekend set February 21-22 at Morehead State. Over their spring trip, the Crusaders will face the likes of Arkansas, Memphis, Mississippi State, and Notre Dame, before opening Horizon League play at Butler the weekend of March 20-21.
Valpo will open the home slate on March 27 against Milwaukee as part of 22 games slated for Emory G. Bauer Field, where the Crusaders went 10-6 one year ago. The Brown and Gold will also host a pair of Big Ten foes at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, with Purdue visiting on April 21 and Northwestern coming to town on May 5.
The regular season comes to a close with a three-game weekend set against UIC May 15-16 before the Crusaders head to Cleveland, Ohio for the 2009 Horizon League Tournament.
“This is probably one of our toughest schedules yet and it will continue to get that way in the future,” Woodson said. “We want to play two top-25 programs every year on our spring trip.”
How the 2009 season plays out will be determined by how quickly the younger players get acclimated to collegiate baseball and are able to step up and make contributions. With just five seniors on the roster, the future is bright for Valpo baseball.
“Everyone, including the young guys, will get a chance throughout our lineup this year,” concluded Woodson. “We have more speed and hope to get guys on to be able to steal more bases.”