For the first time in three years, Valpo baseball enters the spring as the hunter as opposed to the hunted. Back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013 created a brown and gold target within the Horizon League. Wright State's dominating 25-4 regular-season record in 2014 HL play has understandably shifted lofty expectations to Dayton, Ohio. Flying beneath the radar may very well serve the 2015 edition of the Crusaders.
With the first pitch of the season just hours away, we take a glance at this season's club.
On the Hill
While a few columns of Valpo baseball's preseason report card contain incompletes, pitching is one area that earns an unequivocal "A."
Junior Dalton Lundeen (Streamwood, Ill./Streamwood), who crafted one of the strongest seasons of any left-hander in college baseball last season, is expected to take the ball on Fridays. Lundeen recovered from a case of mononucleosis in the preseason to lead the Horizon League in earned run average (1.94), complete games (3), strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.42), walks-plus-hits per inning pitched (1.02), and walks per nine innings pitched (1.30) in '14. Simply put, he was fabulous despite a felonious 5-6 win-loss record. He's earned the promotion from Saturdays to Fridays, where he'll now be going up against opposing aces.
Transfer Ryan Fritze (Woodbury, Minn./Woodbury [Des Moines Area CC]) is slated to take the ball on Saturdays. A sharp slider may very well be his best pitch, which is a high compliment for a right-hander who can bring it mid-to-upper 80's with noticeable arm-side run on his two-seamer. If Fritze can manage his pitch count, he'll provide Valpo with solid innings. The Crusaders have had good luck recently with Minnesota natives who attended DMACC (see John Loeffler), and they expect similar productivity on the bump.
Sophomore Mario Losi (Anaheim, Calif./Canyon) has displayed the confidence to match his stuff. The righty made ten starts for Valpo as a freshman and compiled a 4.05 ERA. Losi's arsenal includes a high-ceiling changeup, good overhand curve, and a fastball in the mid-to-upper 80's. Head coach Brian Schmack lauded Losi's offseason improvements.
"Mario's earned the job. He's pitching with a lot more aggression and intent. He's much more confident and comfortable and it's starting to show pitching-wise," Schmack said.
Depth in the rotation exists as a strong asset.
Ellis Foreman (Round Rock, Texas/Stony Point) assembled an outstanding final few chapters of 2014. His signature outing was an 11-strikeout shutout of the aforementioned Wright State Raiders at Nischwitz Stadium on May 11th. Two starts later, he put the Crusaders on his back and led them to a 1-0 win over UIC at the Horizon League Tournament in Mequon, Wisconsin. Foreman held the Flames scoreless over eight rapid innings of work, walking one, allowing four hits and punching out five. Should Valpo's weekend rotation falter at any point in 2015, Foreman is more than capable of filling in.
Trevor Haas (Mt. Prospect, Ill./Hersey) and Drew Hasler (South Bend, Ind./Mishawaka Marian) both figure to vie for mid-week spots and can provide bullpen innings on the weekend.
Senior Ben Mahar (Mundelein, Ill./Mundelein) has represented a known quantity out of the Crusader bullpen the past three seasons. Mahar's heavy sinker enables him to be used in a myriad of situations, ideally a runner-on-first, less-than-two-outs scenario.
"He's been 'Mr. Reliable' for us. If he's on he's going to get outs. If he isn't, he'll still be able to work out of jams. Ben has learned a lot about pitching over his time here," Schmack said.
Bryce Yoder (Spencerville, Ind./Eastside) experienced a breakout campaign in 2014 unlike any other Crusader. The right-hander reinvented himself thanks to a new pitching motion and saw immediate dividends. Yoder posted a 3.20 ERA while limiting opposing batters to a .216 average. Like Losi, Schmack has noticed an uptick in confidence from the junior.
Freshman southpaw Connor Kaucic (Chardon, Ohio/Notre Dame Cathedral Latin) has raised some eyebrows. A rotation spot may be in order for Kaucic down the road, but his fearlessness and work ethic poise a ready-made option out of the bullpen this spring.
A position that has represented an exclamation point since Schmack arrived to Valparaiso in 2008 resembles a bit of a question mark. Dallas Cawiezell, Jarad Miller, and Karch Kowalczyk all made the 9th-inning decision a no-brainer.
If Luke Syens (Burlington, Wis./Burlington [Madison]) is in the zone, he belongs in the class of his predecessors. Schmack remarked that Syens, a lefty, possesses the best stuff of any arm on the staff. Syens can touch the low 90's on the radar gun, and touts a breaking ball that will solicit a whole lot of swings and misses.
On the Dirt
Spencer Mahoney (LaGrange Park, Ill./Lyons Township) exists as one of the few holdovers on the infield. An OBP machine, the 6'4'' shortstop is the quintessential leadoff batter. Mahoney enters the 2015 campaign fourth all-time in school history in walks (94) and should move into second place by the time Horizon League play commences. His mastery of the strike zone and ability to spoil great pitches gives opposing pitchers fits. Perhaps the most cerebral batter, Mahoney's swing has "never looked better" according to Schmack.
The skipper also raved about freshman Chad Jacob (Irvine, Calif./Woodbridge), who has established himself as the odds-on favorite to inherit the shortstop position in 2016.
"Chad doesn't play like a freshman. Defensively, he's advanced. He knows how to get the good hops because he puts himself in position. He knows his role and is very mature," Schmack said.
Transfers Daniel Delaney (Thousand Oaks, Calif./Thousand Oaks [Fresno State]), Nolan Lodden (West Des Moines, Iowa/West Des Moines [Heartland CC]), and Shea Molitor (Plymouth, Minn./West Lutheran [Des Moines Area CC]) project to see significant time at first, second, and third base, respectively.
Delaney can also fit in at catcher, the one position where Valparaiso doesn't hold a surplus. Last season's starting backstop, Jake Hanson (Yorkville, Ill./Aurora Christian), will miss the 2015 season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
Schmack projects the revamped infield - and the majority of the transfers - to flex its muscle for an offense that slashed an uninspiring .301 slugging percentage a season ago.
Junior Jeff Edwards (Massillon, Ohio/Jackson) provides immeasurable value with the glove, and, as a result, figures prominently into Schmack's plans.
"Nobody turns the double play like him [Jeff]. He's also athletic enough to play multiple positions," Schmack mentioned.
Sophomore Ray Bartolomucci (Concord, Calif./De La Salle) will see increased time behind the dish. Bartolomucci's receiving skills have been praised since he arrived to Valparaiso as a freshman. The coaching staff trumpeted Bartolomucci's offseason work, citing him as undoubtedly the club's most improved player.
In the Grass
Valpo's 2014 co-batting champions won't be roaming Emory G. Bauer Field's capricious outfield in 2015. Chris Manning, who wrapped up his Crusader career with the second-most hits in school history (264), graduated. Michael Morman transferred to Richmond. Both players finished with identical .296 batting averages (61-for-206) last spring.
Josh Clark (Granada Hills, Calif./Hillcrest Christian [Riverside City]) projects as an enticing piece of the puzzle. Clark forecasts as a two-hole hitter, while his hard-nosed, high-energy approach are expected to serve as a spark plug. The left fielder has the capability of causing mayhem on the basepaths.
Mark Johnson (Evanston, Ill./Evanston Township) estimates to be Valpo's opening-day center fielder. Like Mahoney, Johnson owns a keen eye in the batter's box (33 BBs in 206 career at-bats). In each of his previous three seasons with the Brown and Gold, Johnson has enjoyed a several-game stretch where he's the toughest out on the diamond. As a freshman, he filled in for an injured Will Hagel to earn Horizon League Tournament MVP honors. Last season, Johnson clubbed five extra-base hits, including two homers, as part of a 9-for-14 week in mid-April. Schmack praised the leadership role that Johnson has embraced this year.
Dustin Beasley (Round Rock, Texas/Stony Point [Cisco]) is one of the newcomers who possesses the pop that the Crusaders crave. Beasley had a strong fall and looms as a potent middle-of-the-order bat. Beasley has a strong arm that projects well in right field. He was teammates alongside Ellis Foreman at Stony Point High School, where he holds the school record for most hits in a single season (53).
Emerson Misch (Bloomfield Hills, Mich./Andover [IMG Academy]) has benefitted from a recent streak of confidence. Misch's strength and physicality spells credible depth in the outfield and at the plate.
Schmack noted the transformation of sophomore Nate Palace (Westlake Village, Calif./Thousand Oaks), who figures to receive ample at-bats.
"Nate looks really good, and he learned a lot from his freshman season. He completely changed his body over the summer. The ball has been jumping off his bat," Schmack commented.
Valpo opens a three-game set with San Diego State on Friday at 8:00 pm CT/6:00 pm PT. Dalton Lundeen will oppose preseason All-American RHP Bubba Derby in a 8:00 pm CT/6:00 pm PT first pitch. Links to the live stats are available at valpoathletics.com.