As Valparaiso University takes the field for the 2008 season, the Crusaders will be riding the momentum that carries over from a successful 2007 finish. Head coach Tracy Woodson’s squad finished 22-34 a year ago, tying the most wins for a Valpo team since 2001.
This year the Crusaders will be a youthful bunch as the Brown and Gold moves to the Horizon League. Woodson returns 20 players from last season, but just four position starters. Valpo will rely on young arms on the mound while looking for offensive production from a variety of newcomers as the Crusaders look to finish in the top half of their new league in the inaugural season.
Valpo’s starting rotation will be very young. A pair of right-handers will make their way to the top of the Crusaders rotation. Freshman Bryce Shafer is a power pitcher who set the school record for strikeouts and saves at Northfield High School in Indiana. Alex Berry was an All-State selection in Illinois and transferred to Valpo from Olney Central Junior College.
John Snelten returns to the starting rotation after missing all of last season due to injury. He was 4-1 for the Brown and Gold during his first two years with a 4.42 earned run average as a sophomore.
Ranko Ivetic and Derek Smith will also see some action for the Crusaders in the starting rotation. Ivetic started nine games last season as a freshman, striking out 26 while Smith appeared in two games before suffering a season-ending illness.
Southpaw Jon Gulbransen will also get the call for Woodson after striking out 407 during his career at Fox Valley Lutheran High School in Wisconsin, including 152 as a senior.
In the bullpen, sixth-year senior Elliott Gibbs will move into the closer’s role after pitching in the rotation last season. Gibbs struck out 40 in 52.2 innings last year and now has 113 Ks for his career.
Sophomore Austin Siwiec and freshman Jarad Miller will be used as late-inning set-up men for Woodson this season. Left-handers Jay Clites and Patrick Bracco will be used as needed as well along with Patrick Paulus and Steve Godawa in long relief.
“Our pitching has a lot of promise with some young power arms led by Shafer and Gulbransen,” Woodson said. “If we can get the lead we feel very comfortable with Siwiec, Miller, and Gibbs finishing it up for us.”
Senior Joe Lazar and junior college transfer Matt Lenski will share the catching duties for the Crusaders this season. Lazar started 22 games last season for the Crusaders and threw out six potential base stealers. Lenski hit .368 for Madison Area Technical College where he drove in 32 runs and had a .471 on base percentage.
“We have two solid individuals to handle the catching duties this season,” said Woodson.
Half of Valpo’s infield will be filled with newcomers as the 2008 season opens. Sophomore Josh Wallace anchors third base after a solid rookie campaign. He started 27 games hitting .239, but will look to produce even more in a full-time role this year.
Senior John Guisti was solid defensively last season and will handle the second base duties for one more season for the Brown and Gold. He has showed occasional speed from his position near the bottom of the order, entering his final campaign with 15 career stolen bases.
A pair of freshmen appear ready to start for Valpo at first base and shortstop. Ryan O’Gara drove in a school record 56 runs as a senior at Buffalo Grove High School in Illinois and was a First Team All-State selection after hitting .510 with eight homers. He should see a great deal of time at first base this season. Damon McCormick is slated to begin the season at shortstop. He was an Honorable Mention All-State pick at Saint Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky.
Sophomore Brett Bivens and freshman Andrew Quinnette will serve time in utility roles to begin the season for the Crusaders. Bivens got a taste of collegiate ball as a freshman last season, appearing in seven games while Quinnette will be trying to break into the lineup as a rookie.
“Our infield will be young as Giusti is the only upper classmen to lead the way,” Woodson said. “We will have a pair of freshman in McCormick and O’Gara along with a sophomore in Wallace at third. Bivens and Quinnette are both youngsters as well, so our future in the infield should be bright.”
Valpo’s outfield will be the most experienced of any position on the Crusader roster. Jason Brunelli and Zach Rodeghero both had solid seasons last year and will be looking to carry it over into their senior campaigns. Brunelli hit .298 with four homers and 18 runs batted in after spending most of the season in leftfield. Rodeghero, who will also be used as the designated hitter, also has pop in his bat after hitting .295 a year ago. He homered three times and drove in 27, most among Crusader returnees.
Senior Dan DeBruin joined the varsity squad last season and saw action in 19 games, including 10 starts. He will patrol centerfield this season.
A pair of freshmen, Justin Frane and David Klein, will also get a great deal of action in the outfield. Frane led Fort Wayne Carroll High School to a 24-4 mark as a senior.
“We will be relying on our seniors to control the outfield,” Woodson added. “We look for Frane and Klein to contribute as well.”
Valpo’s non-conference schedule will challenge the Crusaders as they ready themselves for their inaugural Horizon League campaign. The Brown and Gold will play their first 23 games away from Emory G. Bauer Field. The season opens February 23 with a three-game set at Austin Peay. The Crusaders will return there the following weekend as well for a tournament before heading to the East Coast for their spring trip.
Valpo will face North Carolina State, Duke, West Virginia and Marshall among others on the two week trip prior to opening Horizon League play on March 21 at Wright State.
The Crusaders will also make non-conference stops at Purdue, Notre Dame, Iowa, and Bradley this season.
The home opener is set for March 28 as the Crusaders host Cleveland State at Emory G. Bauer Field. Horizon League foes UIC, Wright State, Butler, and Youngstown State will also make stops in Valpo during the season while Northwestern will also visit during non-conference play.
The season winds down May 16-17 at UIC before the Crusaders head to Niles, Ohio for the double-elimination Horizon League Tournament, hosted by Youngstown State.
While the Crusaders will be young entering 2008, optimism abounds around the Valpo clubhouse. With several experienced upperclassmen blending with a great deal of talented newcomers, the Brown and Gold will be shooting to move over the .500 mark for the first time in nearly 10 years.