The Valparaiso University baseball team has inked three players to National Letters of Intent for the 2018 season.
Head coach Brian Schmack and his staff will welcome junior college transfer Blake Billinger (Los Gato, Calif. / Mountain West [Mission College]) and true freshmen Zach Orn (Royville, Ind. / Eastside) and Andy Samuelson (LaPorte, Ind. / LaPorte) to the program next year.
“I want to thank (recruiting coordinator) Ben (Wolgamot) and (assistant coach) Nic (Mishler) for their work finding these individuals,” Schmack said. “It takes a lot of time and effort to find the right players, and those two did an outstanding job.”
Billinger, a 6-foot-4 first baseman and outfielder, is coming off a stellar spring campaign at Mission College is Santa Clara, Calif. As a freshman, he hit .347, slugged .533 and posted a .420 on-base percentage while also launching six home runs, driving in 42 runs and striking out just 14 times in 181 plate appearances.
“Losing (Nate) Palace at first base after this year, he’s a guy who can come in and play right away,” Schmack said. “He’s going to be a power guy right out of the shoot, and that’s big for us. We’re excited to have him.”
Billinger was a unanimous first-team all-conference selection while also achieving first-team all-region, first-team all-state and third-team all-American status. Mission College, coached by former Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Bobby Hill, won a conference title and reached the JUCO final eight in Northern California.
During the summer season, Billinger’s offensive production beefed to an even more gaudy level. He hit .570 and slugged 1.147 while posting a .610 on-base percentage, launching 14 home runs and striking out just once in every 15 at-bats for the Glenwood Geckos of the Mountain West Collegiate League.
“We saw Billinger at a showcase in Northern California,” Wolgamot said. “The ball came off the bat with a different sound. He can drive balls to the middle of the field.”
Billinger, who was the ranked the No. 12 first baseman in California out of high school, said the decision to further his career and education at Valpo was an easy one.
“I felt a really good connection with the coaches when I first met them,” he said. “They seem like coaches I really want to play for and do well. They want you to succeed. I had a really good visit. Everything worked out well and it made sense for me to be there next year.”
Billinger said an improved mental approach to hitting helped him take his game to the next level.
“I try to cause damage every time I go to the plate,” he said. “People should expect that I’m going to give a full effort and play with a lot of passion. I love the game. You’ll see a smile on my face because I enjoy playing baseball.”
Orn is coming off a strong junior season at Eastside High School during which he batted .354 to earn a place on the all-conference team. He returned to the diamond after sitting out his sophomore season due to transferring high schools.
Orn, an honor roll student, plans to study criminal justice with a minor in sport management.
“When I went down to visit this summer, I really liked the place and the campus,” he said. “I liked the feel of Valparaiso. It felt like home; it’s a place I’m willing to be for four years. Valpo has a great academic program. The baseball program is really good; I really like the facilities.”
The current high school senior wants to use this year to get bigger, stronger and faster before beginning his collegiate tenure.
“I’m a really hard worker,” he said. “I have a vision of what I’m going to do, and I’m going to do it. I’m going to try to be the best player I can be at Valpo. I want to make an impact my freshman year, and I think I can do that with the hard work I’m going to put in.”
Orn, whose mentality is compared favorably to current Valpo infielder Chase Dawson, goes to the same high school that produced former Valpo relief pitcher Bryce Yoder.
Wolgamot described Orn as a player who stands out every time he plays.
“At the end of the day, he really wants to be here, which is great,” Schmack said. “That’s what we want out of all of our guys. He’s a guy who’s flexible as far as position. He can play middle infield, he’s a scrappy left-handed hitter. He’s the dirtiest guy on the field after the game.”
Samuelson, a left-handed pitcher, earned all-Duneland Athletic Conference accolades last spring in addition to being recognized on the Herald-Argus all-area team and receiving Post-Tribune all-area honorable mention.
“Academically, Valpo’s a great school,” Samuelson said. “I like the baseball program. It’s close to home, so that’s great too. It will be a lot easier to keep in touch with family and friends and see them often.”
Samuelson, a senior at LaPorte, continues a string of talented Northwest Indiana locals who have elected to continue their collegiate careers at Valpo. The current Valpo team features Andrean grad Chase Dawson, Lake Central product Zack Turnbough and Schererville native Scott Kapers.
Samuelson, a two-sport athlete, also plays basketball for the Slicers.
“He has a really good curveball, one of the best ones I saw this summer,” Schmack said. “As a freshman, he can come in and contribute right away out of the bullpen. He’s got a chance to pitch right away, which is good. We only have two or three left-handed pitchers per year, so he’ll be valuable immediately.”