Experience should be on the side of the Valparaiso Crusaders as they take to the diamond for the 2006 campaign. Head coach Paul Twenge's squad returns 22 letterwinners, including all nine position starters, from one year ago as well as five starters from the pitching staff.
Valpo returns the league's top offense in the Mid-Continent Conference. Last year, the Crusaders hit .304 as a team with a .379 on base percentage. The pitching was suspect at times though, and will become a key, along with fielding, to Valpo's success this season. Last year, the Crusaders sported a .950 fielding mark, ranking in the middle of the pack in the Mid-Con.
The Crusaders' top offensive threat, and a solid fielder as well, is first baseman Michael Arensdorff. The Mid-Con's top hitter last year, he hit .382 with four homers while driving in 43 runs. A First Team All Mid-Con selection, he fielded .981 with more than 400 chances on the year.
The only other returning All Mid-Con selection for the Crusaders is outfielder Kevin Perri. He finished sixth in the league hitting .348 and drove in 30 runs for the Brown and Gold. Perri, a First Team selection, was third in the league with a .452 on base percentage and finished sixth with 18 steals in 20 attempts.
Also returning in the outfield are Brian Rzepka and Kevin Kutansky. Rzepka hit over .300 in his sophomore season while driving in 35 runs and should be looked upon to patrol centerfield this year. Kutansky enters his senior season looking to continue the consistency he's set forth his first three years with the program. A career .287 hitter, he is also capable of playing third base, a position he shared time at last year with Jeff Rickert.
Rickert enters 2006 looking for a break out season. He also is capable of playing the outfield, and his versatility showed last season as he appeared in 51 of Valpo's 52 games.
The middle infield also returns for the Brown and Gold with the duo of Jon Rupno and John Giusti. Rupno had a stellar season in 2005 and heads into his final year on the heels of hitting .314 while playing a solid second base for the Crusaders.
Giusti came on as a freshman and made an immediate impact for Valpo. He hit .320 in his rookie campaign while posting a .421 on base percentage. The Crusader shortstop scored 22 times for the Brown and Gold while making 28 starts.
Ryan Manthei and Colin Reynolds will both provide an impact for the Crusader infield as well. Manthei appeared in half of the games for Valpo as a sophomore last year while Reynolds hit .312 in 37 games for the Crusaders in his second season with the club.
Behind the plate Matthew Augustine, Tyler Lowell, and Josh Piazza all saw time, giving Valpo a potent combination heading into 2006. Augustine had the most at bats, 130, while Lowell was known for his glove, posting a .980 fielding mark of the year. Piazza provided the offense, hitting .353 in 85 at bats while driving in 16 runs.
On the hill Valpo returns several starters that have gained experience over the past several seasons. Harvey Yergin was one of the top Crusader hurlers at the end of last year. He led Valpo with 11 starts, including three complete games. Lefthander Nick Mazzone posted the best earned run average among all of Valpo's starters last year at 3.83.
Senior Matt Gillikin is back for the rotation as well as Dallas Cawiezell. Gillikin, a senior, started six games each of the last two years while Cawiezell joined the rotation late in 2005.
Valpo needs to find a new closer for the 2006 season as Adam Knobel, the school record-holder for saves, graduated at the end of last year. Jay Clites and Kyle Obenauf both came out of the pen a great deal last year and may vie for the job alongside sophomore John Snelten.
The Crusaders' schedule for 2006 is a challenging one, but one that will show the experienced team right where they are throughout the year. The season opens March 3 with a three-game series at Austin Peay before the Crusaders head to Florida for their yearly spring trip. The Brown and Gold will play six games in the Sunshine State before heading back north.
The 2006 home opener is slated for March 22 against IPFW at Emory G. Bauer Field and the Mid-Continent Conference schedule gets underway on April 7 at Southern Utah.
In addition to the 24-game Mid-Con slate, Valpo is scheduled to face formidable non-conference foes including Indiana, Notre Dame, Ball State, Northwestern, Bradley, Purdue, and Northern Illinois.
The Crusaders will host Indiana at the U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, Ind. on May 10 and close the regular season May 20 at Western Illinois. The Mid-Con Tournament is set for May 25-27 in Tulsa, Okla. once again.
Valparaiso has the talent in place to make a run for the top of the Mid-Continent Conference standings this season. The Crusaders have a proven offense, and if they can combine it with solid pitching and defense, Valpo should win its share of games.
Will the Crusaders be able to do this? Who will step up and take over for the Brown and Gold? The season is set to begin as Valparaiso takes to the diamond in 2006.