Some of the household names of recent years have departed from the Valparaiso University baseball team, but head coach Brian Schmack and his staff enter 2017 optimistic about their chances of putting together another quality season.
The Crusaders are fresh off a successful 2016 campaign during which they notched the seventh 30-win season in program history, enjoyed their first winning record since 2013 and put together a thrilling tournament win over Milwaukee to reach the Horizon League championship game.
With 12 key seniors accepting their diplomas last May, it’s a year of opportunity for newcomers and returnees alike to take on significant roles.
“It’s not like they all unexpectedly got drafted as juniors, so we knew they were leaving,” Schmack said. “We tried to prepare for this. We had a lot of freshmen come in along with a lot of junior college transfers. You know it’s coming, so you try to prepare as best you can, but we lost our Friday and Saturday starters, our closer and our 3-4-5 hitters.”
The coaching staff has adapted their approach to this year’s less-experienced personnel after going through 2016 with a senior-laden squad.
“It’s exciting, and the coaching is a little different,” Schmack said. “You go back to some of the basics. With the older guys, it’s a little bit more fine-tuning, but with the new guys, you have to install your culture and your way of doing things. That’s what a lot of the focus has been.”
The Starting Staff
There’s no replicating graduated starting pitchers Dalton Lundeen and Trevor Haas, who took the ball on Friday and Saturday respectively for the Crusaders a year ago.
Lundeen was drafted by the Tigers in the 30th round of the Major League Baseball Draft after an illustrious Crusader career, while Haas enjoyed a breakout senior season with a team-best 3.38 ERA to go along with a 5-2 record.
But the Crusaders are confident in their pitching depth, with 17 hurlers on staff after featuring 13 a year ago.
“It’s probably not going to be the starter for eight innings and then a closer,” Schmack said. “It might be a little different this year, and we’re fine with that. That’s the way baseball is going. There seemed to be a lot more matchups like that in the Major League Baseball playoffs last year.”
After starting on Sundays a year ago, Mario Losi (Anaheim, Calif. / Canyon) will take the ball on Fridays as Valpo’s No. 1 starter this season. It’s a promotion that doesn’t come by default merely because the Crusaders lost their top two starters. Instead, it’s a well-earned opportunity for the Valpo senior.
“He’s more aggressive and confident in himself this year,” Schmack said. “Mo’s different this year. He’s playing with a purpose.”
Junior Wes Gordon (Waukegan, Ill. / Warren [Lake County]), a junior college transfer, will take the ball for Valpo on Saturdays. The 5-foot-11 right-hander held opponents to a .205 average and posted a 2.86 ERA in 12 games and 10 starts as a sophomore at Lake County last season.
“Wes is a strike-thrower, a competitor and a thinker,” Schmack said. “We didn’t plan on plugging him into the No. 2 spot in the rotation when we recruited him, but he’s proven that he competes and throws strikes. Those are the things we require. He’s going to be able to keep us in games and win some games for us along the way.”
The weekend rotation rounds out with Grant Inman (Fort Wayne, Ind. / Carroll), who is back after appearing in eight games and making five starts as a freshman, a year that got off to a delayed start as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Inman’s season highlight came on April 13, when he struck out four and yielded just one hit in four shutout innings against Notre Dame.
Fifth-year senior Ellis Foreman (Round Rock, Texas / Stony Point) will also factor into Valpo’s starting staff, particularly once midweek games and four-game league weekends begin. Foreman went 2-2 with a 4.12 ERA in 11 games (nine starts) in 2016.
The makeup of this year’s pitching staff could require the Crusader bullpen to handle an increased workload.
Valpo has a stockpile of arms that could play key roles in the middle of games, including freshman right-hander Jake Larson (Irvine, Calif. / Woodbridge) and freshman southpaw Michael Mommersteeg (St. Thomas, Ont., Canada / St. Joseph’s). Easton Rhodehouse (Gilbert, Ariz. / Highland) is another rookie who has captured Schmack’s attention, while junior Alex Dirienzo (Somerset, Pa. / Somerset [Akron]) will also be a part of Valpo’s middle relief corps.
Rather than designating one closer, bullpen roles will vary based on game situations. Junior Luke VanLanen (Pulaski, Wis. / Pulaski) figures to be a key factor late in games again this season, while Schmack said sophomore Montana Quigley (Lake Forest, Calif. / El Toro) is turning a corner. Freshman Jon Tieman (Crystal Lake, Ill. / Prairie Ridge) has also earned the opportunity to get the ball in high-leverage relief spots.
“In years past, we’ve decided on a closer, and we play a really competitive early part of the season,” Schmack said. “Honestly, there haven’t been many games to close. We’re going to throw some of these better guys in more difficult situations, and then maybe we won’t need a closer later on. I know they say that doesn’t last in pro baseball and you can’t do that over 162 games, but we play 56 with a lot more days off.”
Valpo allowed 61 runs in the sixth inning last year, by far its worst inning. The Crusaders didn’t allow more than 46 runs in any other individual inning. Schmack hopes a different approach to how he utilizes his bullpen will help buck that trend.
“That’s a combination of trying to stretch the starter out a little bit, and maybe he’s tired and is around his 100th pitch, and not going to some of the better guys in those situations,” Schmack said. “If you give up a lot of runs in the sixth, there’s no need for a closer. We’re trying to be a little bit smarter with that and look at the numbers and not just use the traditional setup.
There’s no debating that the Crusaders were hit hard by graduation, but there’s also no questioning the caliber of talent that remains on Valpo’s offense.
The Crusaders are steady up the middle with sophomore Scott Kapers (Schererville, Ind. / Mount Carmel) slated to handle catching duties, sophomore Chase Dawson (Chesterton, Ind. / Andrean) penciled in at second base, junior Chad Jacob (Irvine, Calif. / Woodbridge) ready to start at shortstop and centerfielder James Stea (Los Alamitos, Calif. / Los Alamitos [Golden West]) back for his last hurrah after hitting .318 during his junior year, his first as a Crusader.
Dawson compiled a .253 average and ended the year strong with a 6-for-16 league tournament, while Kapers has been described by Schmack as the best defensive catcher in the league. Kapers threw out 32.7 percent of would-be base-stealers last season. Dawson was a member of the all-freshman team, while Dawson and Stea earned places on the league’s all-tournament team.
Another all-league honoree was first baseman Nate Palace (Westlake Village, Calif. / Oaks Christian), who notched second-team recognition. He’s back for his senior season after cracking six home runs and 12 doubles to go along with a .275 average a year ago. In 2015, he led the team in batting average (.329), home runs (seven) and RBIs (39).
With the departure of Shea Molitor, Sam Shaikin (West Hills, Calif. / Chatsworth) will be inserted as the everyday third baseman. Shaikin, a sophomore, was elected to the Horizon League all-freshman team. He played in 31 games and made 26 starts last year.
Transfer Brent Jones (Ankeny, Iowa / Ankeny Centennial [Iowa Central]) was going to either start at third base or in a corner outfield spot, but he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Valpo’s biggest position battle was in left field, where freshman Riley Dent (Long Beach, Calif. / Wilson) is expected to start for the opening weekend. Schmack said Dent is strong defensively and features solid speed.
The graduation of Josh Clark has opened the door for junior Giovanni Garbella (San Diego, Calif. / Cathedral Catholic) to claim a starting spot in right field. Garbella appeared in 24 games and made six starts during a sophomore season that was highlighted by a grand slam against Purdue North Central on April 25.
Jake Hanson (Yorkville, Ill. / Aurora Christian) is back as a fifth-year senior after hitting .327 in 20 games (14 starts) last season, his first year back after missing 2015 due to Tommy John surgery. Hanson will see time at designated hitter and behind the plate.
The Crusaders begin another challenging schedule this weekend at Western Kentucky in Bowling Green, starting a stretch of 26 straight games away from Emory G. Bauer Field prior to the home opener.
The pre-league slate also includes UAB, Jacksonville, Pennsylvania and South Florida.
“Some of these teams people may not have heard of, but they’re all good teams,” Schmack said. “They’re all down south with good facilities. It’s fun to play good competition. If you have weaknesses, they’re exposed, and that’s good to tighten up before conference.”
Three Horizon League schools feature first-year head coaches, including league favorite Wright State. The Raiders are now under the direction of Jeff Mercer and suffered a number of graduation losses of their own, but they remain the preseason favorites as voted upon by the league’s head coaches.
“I would think Wright State’s the team to beat, but we don’t know what every team brought in,” Schmack said. “They lost their head coach – how are they going to handle that? UIC should be good; Milwaukee should be good. The other teams that have new coaches, Oakland and Youngstown, are going to be better. The league is getting better, and that’s good. We anticipated that and that’s how we want it because that’s going to elevate the league. You can’t say, ‘These three teams are at the top, and the rest are terrible.’ That’s definitely not the case.”