Valparaiso (0-0, 0-0 Horizon)
at Western Kentucky (0-0, 0-0 Conference USA)
Nick Denes Field | Bowling Green, Ky.
Friday, Feb. 17, 3 p.m. CT - Losi (R) vs. Thurston (L)
Saturday, Feb. 18, 1 p.m. - Gordon (R) vs. Coll (R)
Sunday, Feb. 19, 1 p.m. - Inman (R) vs. Kirkpatrick (R)
This Week in Crusader Baseball: The Valparaiso University baseball team will begin its annual stretch of road games to start the season as the Crusaders crank up the 2017 campaign on Friday in Bowling Green, Ky. The Crusaders take the diamond against the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky for a three-game weekend series.
Last Time Out: This series represents the opening weekend for the 2017 Crusaders. Valpo’s most recent game action came on May 28, 2016, when the Crusaders fell to Wright State 7-2 in the Horizon League Championship. Valpo had won three of its first four league tournament games to reach the final, including a thrilling 12-7 semifinal triumph over Milwaukee.
On the Air: This weekend’s games will have a video feed available on WKUSports.tv. To access the online stream, fans must purchase a WKUSports.tv subscription ($9.95 monthly, $79.95 yearly). Links to live video and stats are available on ValpoAthletics.com.
Head Coach Brian Schmack: Brian Schmack, the 17th head coach in Valparaiso University history, is in his fourth season at the helm of the Crusaders. He led Valparaiso to 25 wins in his inaugural campaign, a school record for victories by a first-year skipper. The former big leaguer followed that up with a 22-win season in 2015, then guided the team to its first winning record since 2013 a year ago. Schmack, a member of the 2003 Detroit Tigers, served as pitching coach/associate head coach at Valpo for seven seasons prior to his promotion.
Friday Starters: Senior RHP Mario Losi will take the ball as Valpo’s Friday starter to begin this season. Losi finished his junior campaign with a 3-6 record and 4.96 ERA in 12 starts. He served as the team’s No. 3 starter, starting mostly on Sundays. After two seasons of graduated senior Dalton Lundeen taking the ball to begin every weekend series, Losi will advance to the top spot in the rotation. He’ll be opposed by redshirt junior lefty Ryan Thurston, who began last season as the Sunday starter and elevated his status to Friday duties by season’s end. He set the program record by pitching 10 scoreless innings on April 30 against Florida International last season. Thurston finished the campaign with a 4.20 ERA and 3-5 record in 15 games, 14 starts.
Saturday Starters: Junior College transfer Wes Gordon will make his Crusader debut on Saturday after spending his first two collegiate seasons at Lake County. As a sophomore with the Lancers, Gordon held opponents to a .205 average and compiled a 2.86 ERA. This marks the second time in three years the Crusaders start a newcomer on the first Saturday of the season, as Ryan Fritze did the same as a junior college transfer in 2015. Gordon will face off with Western Kentucky righty Cody Coll, who made 10 starts and went 3-3 with a 5.51 ERA as the Hilltoppers’ primary midweek starter a year ago. Coll is a native of Naperville, Ill., the same hometown as Valpo freshman catcher Christian Barczi.
Sunday Starters: Sophomore Grant Inman will become the first underclassman to start on the opening weekend of the season since Mario Losi took the ball as a freshman in 2015. Inman will face off with McLennan JC transfer Paul Kirkpatrick in a battle of right-handers. Kirkpatrick went 4-3 and allowed two runs or fewer in eight of his 12 appearances at McLennan last season. Inman started his freshman season sidelined by Tommy John surgery and was limited to 29 innings during which he compiled a 4.97 ERA.
Preseason Poll: The Crusaders were picked to finish fourth in the seven-team Horizon League based on voting by the league’s head coaches. Wright State hauled in five of the six first-place votes and is picked to repeat as the league champion, with UIC projected to finish second. Milwaukee is picked third, followed by Valparaiso, Northern Kentucky, Oakland and Youngstown State.
Series Notes: The Crusaders and Hilltoppers will go at it for the first time since 2002 this weekend. The two teams have met three times ever, with Western Kentucky capturing two victories. The Hilltoppers prevailed 9-5 in the most recent meeting, while Valpo’s lone win came 6-5 in 1985. Western Kentucky was victorious 6-0 in the first matchup on March 12, 1981. Both of Valpo’s losses came at Western Kentucky, while the victory occurred in Panama City, Fla.
Looking Back: Valpo finished 2016 with a 30-28 record, its first winning season since 2013 and just the seventh 30-victory campaign in program history. Valpo scored 377 runs, fourth-most in a season in school history. The team also ranked fourth in program history in hits (586) and fifth in total bases (809). The Crusaders graduated 12 seniors a year ago including their top two starting pitchers, closer and 3-4-5 hitters.
In the Other Dugout: Western Kentucky was picked to finish 12th in the 12-team Conference USA preseason poll. The Hilltoppers went 24-30 a year ago and 10-20 in conference play. Like the Crusaders, the Hilltoppers are loaded with new faces, with 17 newcomers on the roster. The team has a new AstroTurf playing surface and will host 18 of its first 22 games at Nick Denes Field, which received a $1.3 million offseason face lift. Head coach John Pawlowski is back for his second season after spending 2009-13 at Auburn. Western Kentucky was hit hard by departures, with key losses including Danny Hudzina, who hit .408 last year before being selected in the 10th round of the 2016 MLB Draft by the Cardinals. Fifth-year senior RHP Jackson Sowell was recently named one of 60 players on the initial Watch List for the Stopper of the Year Award, given to the top relief pitcher in Division I baseball.
Connection Corner: In addition to Valpo’s Barczi and Western Kentucky’s Coll both hailing from Naperville, Barczi went to Naperville North, also the alma mater of Western Kentucky fifth-year senior catcher Ty Hogan… Western Kentucky freshman infielder Bryson Smith and Valpo freshman pitcher Garrett Hill graduated from San Marino High School in San Marino, Calif. together last year. The former high school teammates will occupy opposite dugouts for their first collegiate game after playing together the last two seasons.
Youthful Crusaders: The Crusaders have 11 freshmen and 15 total newcomers on this year’s roster. They have just five seniors after having 12 a year ago. This marks the fewest seniors Valpo has featured since having just four on the 2010 roster. The Crusaders haven’t had this many true freshmen on the roster since 2008. The Crusaders have the most true freshmen in the Horizon League, with UIC’s eight second most. Valpo and Wright State have the fewest seniors in the league with five apiece.
Driftless Drivel: The Crusaders will seek to open a season with a win for the first time since Feb. 14, 2014 against Samford… Western Kentucky begins the season by hosting a Horizon League squad for the second straight year after taking two of three from Youngstown State in 2016… The Crusaders will play five games in Kentucky this season, where they won all three last season at Northern Kentucky. Before last year, the Norse’s first in the Horizon, the Crusaders hadn’t visited the state since a three-game set at Murray State to begin the 2012 campaign.