After finishing second in the 2011 Horizon League Tournament, the Valparaiso University baseball team takes to the diamond in 2012 looking to take the next step in moving towards the top of the conference. The Crusaders will look for their first conference title since winning the Heartland Collegiate Conference in 1982 while trying to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1976.
Head coach Tracy Woodson returns for his sixth year at the helm of the Brown and Gold and returns 16 players from last year’s squad which finished the year 25-32 overall and 14-10 in the Horizon League. Valpo started the season 1-17 one year ago before finishing nine games over.500 for the final 39 contests of the year. Woodson has also brought in 17 new faces to this year’s roster, several of which will vie for playing time from day one.
Valpo has been picked to finish third in the conference this year according to the coaches’ preseason poll. The Crusaders will face another challenging non-conference schedule, which includes a trip to preseason top-five foe Arkansas the second weekend of the season. With a 30-game Horizon League schedule on the docket this year, getting off to a solid start from opening day will be important to the season’s success.
One of the keys to success every year for the Crusaders is a solid pitching rotation. Valpo looks to replace three starters that logged numerous innings for the Brown and Gold last year, but has several strong arms waiting to throw this year.
Tyler Deetjen relies upon his control to keep batters off base. Last year he won four contests and tossed four complete games while logging 103 innings of work, second most on the team. The senior southpaw walked just 12 batters all season long while the opposition hit.268 against him. This year he’ll be called upon once again to help lead the weekend rotation.
Valpo also returns the services of Will Robinson to the rotation after he missed all of last season with an injury. The fifth-year senior made six appearances, including four starts in 2010 before having his year cut short due to the injury, and looks to rebound this year.
Junior college transfer Kyle Wormington is also expected to see action on the weekend this spring for the Brown and Gold. The right-hander has a strong arm, was a winner at Connors State, and should make an immediate impact in Valpo’s rotation.
Sophomore Kevin Upp and freshman Ben Mahar will also battle for starting spots heading into 2012. Upp made several weekday starts for the Crusaders during his freshman season, posting a 2-0 record with a 3.03 earned run average. With the opposition hitting just .234 against him, he ranked among the Horizon League’s best in both ERA and opponents’ batting average.
At the back end of Valpo’s bullpen, Jarad Miller looks to close out games in the same manner he did in 2009 before getting hurt. Miller was a Third Team All-American as a sophomore and has notched 28 career saves before an injury cut short his 2010 campaign. He also missed all of last year. During that sophomore campaign, Miller finished third in the country with 17 saves and posted a 2.16 ERA while the opposition batted just .178 against him.
Kevin Wild also returns out of the bullpen this year for the Crusaders after a successful 2011 season. In his first season with the Brown and Gold he made 19 appearances and limited opponents to a .237 hitting mark. He struck out 33 batters in just 30.1 innings of work.
Mike Jacobs looks to become a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen this season after appearing in eight games one year ago. Greg Stiller is the only other hurler on the Crusader staff that has seen action at Valpo as the Brown and Gold will be without the services of Karch Kowalczyk this year. Kowalczyk is out for the season with an elbow injury.
Sean Kennedy sat out last season after transferring from Jacksonville University and will also compete for time on the mound as a southpaw. Freshman Devin Pickell is the only other left-hander on the staff while freshmen right-handers Kyle Schneider, Zack Walsh, Ryan Kennedy, Cole Schaenzer, and Connor Buxton will also battle for time on the hill.
Billy Cribbs returns to the Valpo lineup after sitting out last season as a redshirt. The redshirt-junior started 31 games in 2010, batting .280. He’s the only catcher on the roster with significant collegiate experience. Tyler Weddington, who has two career at bats, will battle freshman Rob Rabakozi and Walsh for the back-up spot.
Valpo’s infield will have a new look to it as the 2012 season opens. Will Hagel will return to first base after earning First Team All-Horizon League accolades one year ago. He batted .328 on the year with 46 runs batted in, ranking fourth in the conference. He also was named to the conference’s All-Tournament Team after posting a pair of three-hit contests in the league championships. Hagel enters the year having reached base safely in 30 straight games as well as posting a 13-game hitting streak.
Transfer Tanner Vavra and freshman Spencer Mahoney look to occupy the middle infield as the year opens up. Vavra batted .421 at Madison College last year while stealing 18 bases. Mahoney earned All-State honors in Illinois as a senior at Lyons Township High School.
Elliott Martin should start the season at third base for the Brown and Gold after transferring to Valpo from Saddleback College. The junior batted .301 last year while earning All-Orange Empire Conference honors as the team’s Most Valuable Player.
Bobby Martin also returns to the Valpo infield and may spend time at designated hitter as well. A member of the Horizon League’s All-Newcomer Team a year ago, he hit .262 with 22 RBIs. John Loeffler also can play the infield and may DH for the Crusaders as well. A transfer from Des Moines Area Community College, the left-hander batted .330 with six home runs and 59 runs batted in as a sophomore.
Freshman Grant Yoder will also compete for time on the Crusader infield this season while sophomore Michael Morman will miss the year with a torn ACL after being named to the Horizon League’s All-Tournament Team in 2011.
Valpo’s outfield should be solid as the season opens. Chris Manning returns to patrol centerfield after earning All-Newcomer and All-Tournament Team honors as a rookie. He batted .297 in his first season with the Crusaders while sharing the league lead with 21 stolen bases.
Senior Steven Scoby started all 56 games in leftfield as a junior, but will move to right this year. A career .302 hitter, he has driven home 72 runs during his Valpo career. He too is a threat on the base paths.
Andrew Bain moves out to leftfield this season for the Crusaders after playing middle infield in 2011. Bain led Valpo in batting with a .343 mark last season and posted a .419 on base percentage. He enters the year with an eight-game hitting streak.
Freshman Mark Johnson will look to provide back up in the outfield in his first season wearing the Brown and Gold.
As has been the case since Woodson arrived, Valpo will play a challenging non-conference slate with the hopes of preparing the Crusaders for the rigors of Horizon League action. The Crusaders will play their first 19 games away from Emory G. Bauer Field, beginning with a three-game set at Murray State on Feb. 17. The second weekend of play will see the Crusaders travel to perennial national power Arkansas for three games. Valpo then will embark on a two week spring break trip through the Carolinas and Tennessee before returning to Indiana to open Horizon League play at Butler March 16.
Valpo’s home opener will be one week later, on March 23, against Milwaukee and the Crusaders will wrap up the regular season with nine straight home contests May 8-19. This year’s Horizon League Tournament will take place in Chicago on the campus of UIC. The double elimination event will be held May 23-27 with the winner earning the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Crusaders look to take the next step in advancing the program this season with the hopes of claiming their first Horizon League title. The schedule is challenging, but the pieces are in place for a successful season. Coach Woodson hopes the pitching and defense gel with the offense beginning on Feb. 17.