As Valparaiso takes to the diamond for the 2007 season, change is in the air around Emory G. Bauer Field. Tracy Woodson takes over the Crusader program as its head coach, and looks to lead Valpo back to the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament for the first time since 2003 in the Crusaders' final season in the league.
Valpo returns 22 letterwinners from last year's team which went 17-34 overall and 9-14 in the Mid-Con, finishing sixth. The Crusaders have three starting pitchers back from last year's squad in addition to six offensive starters.
On the mound Woodson will rely on an experienced starting staff to take the Crusaders deep into games. Seniors Harvey Yergin and Nick Mazzone each started 12 games last season, and will be called upon to help shoulder the load again this year. Yergin, a right-hander, led Valpo with 75.1 innings pitched and 43 strikeouts while Mazzone is a southpaw who posted a team high five victories for Valpo one year ago.
In the bullpen, Derek Smith and Jay Clites return after being used in middle relief a good portion of the 2006 season. Smith notched a 4.25 ERA, second best on the team, while Clites went 2-2 in a team high 19 appearances. Dallas Cawiezell became the team's closer midway through the season, ending the year with three saves and 24 strikeouts in 28.2 innings. He looks to move to the starting rotation this season.
Valpo also regains the services of Elliot Gibbs after he missed the 2006 season with an injury. He hopes for a healthy year this season while looking to return to the mound as well as moving into the starting rotation. In addition, Patrick Paulus, Aaron Rank, and Patrick Bracco return to the staff after seeing action on the mound last year.
Behind the plate, Valpo returns Second Team All Mid-Continent Conference selection Josh Piazza as well as redshirt-junior Joe Lazar. Piazza hit .296 for the Crusaders last season in 32 games offensively. His arm allowed him to throw out 16 of 29 potential base stealers, a 55% rate.
Lazar saw action in 10 games last year, including a pair of starts for the Crusaders, but will look to make more of an impact this season.
The strength of the Valpo infield will be on the corners. Senior Michael Arensdorff committed just one error all season at first base last year for the Crusaders and will look to anchor the position once again. A .322 career hitter, Arensdorff has driven in 83 runs over his first three years wearing the Brown and Gold.
Ryan Manthei and Colin Reynolds split time between third base and designated hitter for Valpo one year ago. Manthei led Valpo with a .363 batting average to go along with nine homers and 31 runs batted in during his junior season. Reynolds hit .288 while driving in 21 runs in 41 starts.
John Giusti made 49 starts for Valpo at shortstop as a sophomore and will again appear in the middle infield for the Crusaders. Hitting at the bottom of the order, Giusti posted a team high nine sacrifice bunts last season.
Senior Jeff Rickert looks to rebound from a shoulder injury that kept him out most of 2006 and return to the lineup regularly for the Crusaders in the infield. He will battle with sophomore Dan Portschy and Alex Halstead, both of whom came off of the bench in their rookie seasons last year.
The Crusader outfield will be young this season as Woodson returns just centerfielder Brian Rzepka from last year's starting lineup. Rzepka will be a four-year starter for Valpo after driving in 24 runs and stealing 11 bases for the Brown and Gold last year.
The only other returnee to the outfield is Zach Rodeghero. A .424 hitter in just 33 at bats last season, the redshirt-junior should have an opportunity for more action this season. He had nine RBIs in 17 games last year, mostly coming off of the bench.
With just the two returnees, rookies will get the opportunity to battle for action this season patrolling the outfield. In addition, Reynolds and Arensdorff both can move to the outfield if needed, having provided depth there in the past.
Valpo's schedule will provide the Crusaders with a variety of opponents, with the goal in place of providing the Crusaders the best opportunity to continue to improve throughout the season leading up to the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament.
Valpo opens the 2007 season on March 3 with a doubleheader at Longwood before heading to Bradenton, Fla. for their annual spring trip. The Crusaders will stop at North Carolina State as well as Richmond as part of the trip back north before finally opening the home campaign on March 23 against Chicago State.
The Brown and Gold also have home non-conference dates with Big Ten foes Indiana and Purdue on the slate as well as visits from instate foes Indiana State and Butler. Mid-Continent Conference action begins April 20 against Centenary before the regular season comes to a close on May 20 when the Crusaders host Southern Utah. This year's Mid-Continent Conference Tournament is set for May 24-26 in Macomb, Ill.
Hopes are high heading into the 2007 season for the Valparaiso Crusaders. With a new head coach leading the way along with 22 returning letterwinners, the pieces are in place to begin rebuilding the winning tradition at Valpo. With talented newcomers looking to add depth to the roster while also vying for playing time, competition will be fierce for starting spots.
Can the Crusaders finish in the top four and earn a spot in the Mid-Con Tournament in their final season in the league? What is the potential for this year's squad? The answers will soon be answered as Valpo takes to the diamond for the 2007 season.