Though much of the cast is different, the Valparaiso Crusaders open 2014 in a similar position to last year. Coming off back-to-back NCAA Regional appearances, five other Horizon League teams aim to dethrone the Brown and Gold come late May. A signature 5-4 win over Florida - just 24 hours after coming two outs away from the biggest upset in program history - put Valparaiso on the college baseball map. The season commences this Friday and the Crusaders intend on proving they're no fluke.
"We approach each day realizing that while we may have gotten to the Regionals, we haven't accomplished all we want to and that keeps us going," first-year head coach Brian Schmack said in an interview with Collegiate Baseball Insider earlier this week.
Emory G. Bauer Field currently sits knee-deep in snow, but with opening day 48 hours away we take a look at the 2014 version of the Crusaders.
In the Dugout
New blood was recently injected into a coaching staff that had been place in from 2011-2013. Former head coach Tracy Woodson (Richmond) and former assistant coach Adam Piotrowicz (Western Michigan) moved away, then-associate head coach Brian Schmack moved up to the head of the table, and former volunteer assistant Jeramy St. Clair moved on. With the promotion of Schmack - Woodson's chief lieutenant for seven seasons - came reinforcement of a level of heightened expectations within an organization that has won 92 games the past three years and advanced to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time in school history.
Schmack, who has been lauded as a master pitch-caller by a number of current and former Crusader battery-mates, will continue his play-calling duties from the rubber to home plate. Newly-anointed assistant coach Mike Stalowy will play offensive tactician from the dugout, while assistant Ben Wolgamot and volunteer assistant Nic Mishler will reside in the third and first base boxes, respectively.
On the Dirt
The infield brings more questions than answers in 2014. Valparaiso graduated core players at all positions except shortstop. Tanner Vavra, John Loeffler, Elliott Martin, and Billy Cribbs offered the Crusaders plenty of punch in the order, steady defense, credible leadership, or all of the above. Redshirt senior Andy Burns (Edwardsville, Ill./Edwardsville [Heartland CC]), who appeared in 38 games last season, figures to see the majority of time at second base, though his defensive versatility allows Schmack to move him at either shortstop or third base should the need arise.
Last season's on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) leader Andrew Bynum (Huntington Beach, Calif./Ocean View [Orange Coast CC]) will inherit the first base job. Bynum, who dealt with a hamstring injury for much of 2013, possesses significant pop and should be given ample RBI opportunities in the middle of the order. Junior Spencer Mahoney (La Grange Park, Ill./Lyons Township) may see his name at the top of the lineup card more often than in his first two seasons. The 6'4'' shortstop is the most patient and disciplined Crusader at the plate (54 BBs/55Ks in 304 career at-bats). His ability to drive up pitch counts and take walks project him as an ideal leadoff batter. Mahoney, who hit his first career home run versus Florida in the NCAA Regional last season, has put on 15 pounds of muscle and could very well see an increase in his power numbers.
Joppi Martin (Irvine, Calif./University [Saddleback]), Elliott's younger brother, will sit out the 2014 season after undergoing hip labrum surgery. As a result, freshman Nate Palace (Westlake Village, Calif./Oaks Christian) will man the hot corner to open the season. Palace, who went deep in a Fall World Series game, "has some juice in his bat" according to Schmack.
Jake Hanson (Yorkville, Ill./Aurora Christian) will serve as Valpo's backstop. Catchers, like umpires, are at their best when gone unnoticed and Crusader fans were able to take Cribbs' defense for granted for much of the past three seasons. Hanson owns the best arm behind the plate and shined in his reserve role (.370 BA in 13 games) last season. A mix of young Crusader pitchers will rely on the sophomore to become acquainted with an increased workload. Freshman Ray Bartolomucci (Concord, Calif./De La Salle), who is the best receiver on the roster, is a strong backup.
Jeff Edwards (Massillon, Ohio/Jackson) possesses a plus-glove that will force his way into the field especially in late-inning situations. Should injuries strike the infield, the sophomore is more than capable of providing sound play as a starter.
In the Grass
The outfield carries veteran presence at each position. Senior Chris Manning (Lake Forest, Calif./El Toro) has been a model of consistency on both sides of the ball for the Crusaders. He's started all but one game for the Brown and Gold since arriving to Valpo in 2010. Manning will assume his position in right field and will be featured toward the top of the lineup to open the season. Michael Morman (Rockford, Ill./Boylan Catholic) is slated as the opening day starter in left field. Morman has battled knee and back ailments each of the last two seasons. When healthy, he supplies considerable power and projects as a middle of the order bat in addition to a plus arm.
The 2012 Horizon League Conference Tournament MVP Mark Johnson (Evanston, Ill./Evanston Township) will begin the season in center. Johnson is patient at the plate and has developed a knack for timely hits. Bryce Hara (Irvine, Calif./Northwood [Irvine Valley College]) continues to work towards 100% health after dealing with a hamstring injury sustained in the fall. The senior offset a .249 batting average with a .330 on-base percentage and his speed allows him to patrol generous space in center field. Freshman Emerson Misch (Bloomfield Hills, Mich./Andover [IMG Academy]) is best described as both fast and physically mature and will give Schmack flexibility in the outfield and in late-inning situations. Misch's work ethic, approach at the plate, and overall baseball smarts have impressed.
On the Hill
After a stellar first year with the Crusaders, Cole Webb (Tulsa, Okla./Union [Coffeyville CC]) is slotted as the opening day starter. Webb finished 2013 with a misleading 5-7 record. His 3.42 ERA and 1.30 WHIP were more indicative of his overall body of work. The senior carried a sub-2.00 ERA into mid-April and limited one of the best offensive teams in the country (Indiana) to one run over seven innings in the Bloomington Regional last May 31st.
Dalton Lundeen (Streamwood, Ill./Streamwood), who saved his most dominating start of the season for the Horizon League Tournament-clinching game over Wright State, figured to be a shoe-in for the Saturday starting spot, but a case of mononucleosis has rendered him out. Schmack is hopeful the sophomore can return during Valpo's spring trip, but Lundeen's recovery remains a question mark. As a result, Drew Hasler (South Bend, Ind./Mishawaka Marian) will make his third career start Saturday versus Samford. The 6'6'' right-hander will pound the strike zone (1 BB in 21 IP in 2013), a long-standing prerequisite for Crusader pitchers.
Freshman Mario Losi (Anaheim, Calif./Canyon) has worked his way into the starting rotation with an advanced changeup, good overhand curve, and a fastball in the mid-to-upper 80's. His 6'3'', 180-pound frame projects well as Losi possesses the highest ceiling of any pitcher.
Trevor Haas (Mt. Prospect, Ill./Hersey) and Ellis Foreman (Round Rock, Texas/Stony Point) both figure to vie for mid-week spots and can provide bullpen innings on the weekend.
Junior Ben Mahar (Mundelein, Ill./Mundelein) has been an unsung hero out of the Crusader bullpen the past two seasons. Mahar's heavy sinker allows him to get two outs with one pitch; hence, his ideal fit as the first man out of the pen. Woodson showed no hesitation using the underclassman in highly-flammable situations in '12 and '13 and that trust is sure to carry on as Mahar has developed into a veteran leader.
At the back end of the bullpen is Karch Kowalczyk. The senior carried twelve saves and a microscopic 0.36 ERA into the postseason last year. Kowalczyk earned Horizon League Tournament MVP honors in 2013 after saving all three games for the Crusaders in their unblemished run through the tourney. He was later named the League's Relief Pitcher of the Year. The National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) has named him to the 2014 Preseason Stopper of the Year Watch List.
The rest of the bullpen features a medley of mid-80's throwing righties. Sophomore Bryce Yoder (Spencerville, Ind./Eastside) has been working on a new delivery that will give batters a different look. Junior transfer Jason Condit (Putnam, Ill./Henry-Senachwine [Illinois Central College]) and redshirt junior Zach Walsh (Batesville, Ind./Batesville [Connecticut]) own the most experience of the remaining relievers. Sean Kennedy (Gurnee, Ill./Warren Township [Jacksonville]) represents the lone lefty out of the pen as Matt Gatewood (Westport, Ind./South Decatur) and Chet Joslyn (Battle Creek, Mich./Lakeview) will spend the season rehabbing from surgery.
Valpo opens a three-game set with Samford on Friday. Cole Webb will oppose righty Chase Traffica in a 6:00 pm CT first pitch. Links to the live stats will be available at valpoathletics.com.