The Valparaiso University Baseball Team will open its season on Friday at 2 p.m. against Ball State at the Governor's Cup Tournament hosted by the University of Evansville. The Crusaders will also play on Saturday and Sunday. Indiana State, IPFW and Butler join Ball State, Evansville and Valpo at the event.
Following the tournament, Valpo will begin its spring trip games in Bradenton, Fla. on March 1 against Northeastern. The Crusaders are scheduled to play eight games down south.
Several questions should develop for the Valparaiso University Baseball Team as the 2004 season progresses. Will youth be served for coach Paul Twenge's Crusaders as a plethora of freshmen and sophomores replace the senior-laden team of a year ago? Can the depth of the pitching staff evolve to complement Tom Starck, last season's Mid-Continent Conference Co-Pitcher of the Year? As Adam Paetznick, the 2003 Mid-Con saves leader, makes the transition back into the starting rotation, who will step forward to fortify the bullpen?
Due to the graduation of 11 seniors, the 2004 Crusaders are forced to retool at six positions in the field. The lone returning everyday starters are second baseman Eddie Hannan, shortstop Kevin Kutansky and the platoon of Nick Mazzone and Jeff Rickert in left field. The pitching staff returns lefty Starck and righty Elliott Gibbs, along with Paetznick adjusting to a different role.
Overall, Valpo has just four seniors on the entire roster, including catcher Troy Garrett, a transfer. The youthful theme surrounding the Crusaders is epitomized by the fact that four true freshmen will occupy four starting positions.
Here's a look at each position area:
Valpo's major strength in 2004 focuses on the return of Starck, who turned in the best season for a Crusader pitcher in Mid-Con history (1982-). A senior, Starck compiled a 3.44 ERA, while striking out 76 in 70 2/3 innings. In a four-game stretch in Mid-Con play, Starck fanned 45 in 34 innings, recording at least 10 strikeouts in each of the contests. During that span, he struck out 12 batters twice and compiled two complete games. In Mid-Con games only, Starck finished 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA, striking out 50 in 38 1/3 innings.
Paetznick, following a league-leading 8-save season, will make the transition into the starting rotation. The 6'8" senior averaged more than a strikeout per inning in 2003. Sophomore righthander Gibbs and his high-velocity arm return after pitching nearly 50 innings as a freshman.
Sophomore righty Kyle Obenauf (3-2 in 2003) will compete for a spot in the rotation and provide strength to the bullpen. Junior Eric Brauer, who used the 2003 season as a medical red-shirt year following surgery, is expected to be the closer. Righthander Jordan Smolar (3.32 ERA), who ranked second behind Paetznick with 16 appearances last year, fortifies the relief corps. Junior Adam Knobel also gives the bullpen solid depth.
Twenge will depend upon the tandem of Garrett and Tyler Lowell behind the plate. Garrett, a transfer from Ball State, has one year of eligibility remaining. Lowell, a sophomore, played in 29 games as a freshman without committing an error (121 chances).
In addition to the return of Starck on the mound, the other main strength of Valpo's squad rests with the middle infielders. Hannan, the only returning Crusader to start all 56 games a year ago, will control second base. A senior, Hannan finished third among Valpo's starters with a .282 batting average in 2003. His defensive presence was also felt as evidenced by a fine .973 fielding percentage. Hannan teams with sophomore Kutansky, who earned the starting shortstop job in the second half of his freshman campaign. Kutansky produced big numbers in the last 10 games of 2003, hitting .459 (17 of 37) with 16 RBIs, including two, 5-RBI games. Overall, he batted .270 with 24 RBIs and compiled a .417 slugging percentage.
The corner positions will be manned by either true freshmen or a sophomore. Freshman Ryan Manthei and sophomore Rickert will compete for the third base spot. Rickert, who will also play a major role in left field, batted .333 (6 for 18) in 16 games as a freshman. First base will be occupied by two freshmen, Zach Rodeghero and Colin Reynolds.
Although the young outfield will have two new starters, some collegiate experience exists. In 2003, Mazzone and Rickert shared a platoon in left field. Now both in their sophomore seasons, the duo provides coach Twenge with an effective lefty/righty combination. One of reasons why Mazzone and Rickert were able to gain valuable playing time as freshmen was due to an injury to Mike Arensdorff. Prior to breaking a bone in his hand/wrist very early in the 2003 season, Arensdorff was the starting leftfielder. A red-shirt freshman, Arensdorff will move over to right field in 2004. Another true freshman, Brian Rzepka, is slated to patrol center field.
The offensive position that will be the most difficult to replace is designated hitter. Marc Boggio, who graduated after earning First Team All-Mid-Con recognition last year, led Valpo with a .347 batting average and 37 RBIs in 2003. Red-shirt freshman Matt Augustine will have an opportunity to establish himself as the regular DH.