Two words that hold a special ring to baseball fans across the world will be spoken this week with regard to the Valparaiso University baseball team – Opening Day.
The 2020 edition of Valpo baseball will make its debut on Friday as the team visits Western Kentucky to start a three-game series. That marks the beginning of another challenging nonconference slate for head coach Brian Schmack’s squad, leading into the team’s third season in the prestigious and highly-competitive Missouri Valley Conference, which sent three teams to NCAA Regional Finals a year ago.
“This team is very connected and close this year,” Schmack said. “It’s a unit. We have 13 seniors and they’ve done a great job of bringing everyone together and closing the gap between seniors and freshmen. Some teams have a disconnect between freshmen and seniors, but for our team this season, that isn’t the case. They’re playing together and supporting one another.”
Schmack’s team enters the season with no shortage of experience on the mound as Valpo returns 388 1/3 out of 421 2/3 innings pitched last season, bringing back 92.1 percent of the workload. The team’s top seven pitchers in terms of ERA all return for the 2020 campaign. There are 18 pitchers on the roster, and all are currently healthy and available as the season gets underway.
“Depth is the strength of our pitching staff,” Schmack said. “We have a refreshing mix of veterans and young guys who can contribute. When we have meetings and talk to guys about our approach, we have many experienced pitchers who have been around the league. They know what it takes and have a lot of innings under their belts. There is a reason older teams win; they know how to handle their business.”
Senior Easton Rhodehouse (Gilbert, Ariz. / Highland) will serve as the team’s Opening Day starting pitcher on Friday at Western Kentucky, a noteworthy development as Rhodehouse has made 63 appearances and no starts through his first three seasons. After finishing with four saves while holding opponents to a .228 batting average in 35 1/3 innings last season, Rhodehouse will start the season as the Friday starter. However, he will continue to work relief-length outings and is expected to be followed in Friday’s game by the team’s Friday starter in recent years, senior Jon Tieman (Crystal Lake, Ill. / Prairie Ridge).
Rhodehouse was a member of the 2017 Horizon League All-Freshman team, but followed by posting a 9.68 ERA as a sophomore in 2018. He bounced back in a big way a year ago, earning 2019 All-MVC Honorable Mention recognition by virtue of a team-best 3.82 ERA.
“We’re trying to put our pitchers in the best position for them to succeed and make an impact,” Schmack said. “We want to utilize players’ strengths instead of saving them for certain roles that we rarely get to. We have a lot of players who can do the job, and we want to make sure we’re putting them in the correct situations. We left a lot of innings in the bullpen last year by waiting for what may happen or could happen rather than using our best relievers when we needed them. Easton is going to come in when it’s 0-0 or we’re leading after the top of the first, so that’s a better situation than we put him in last season.”
Tieman is back for his senior season after racking up 78 strikeouts in 2019, the most by a Valpo hurler in a single season since 2015. He led Valpo in strikeouts for the third straight season and enters his senior campaign with 185 career strikeouts, needing 202 to crack the Top 10 in program history.
Sophomore Colin Fields (Libertyville, Ill. / Libertyville) will start the season as the squad’s Saturday starter. He worked 48 1/3 innings and made 13 appearances including nine starts during his freshman campaign, spending much of the year in the weekend rotation. He ranked second on the team with 52 strikeouts.
The team’s Sunday starter will be determined based on how the first two games of the series unfold. Sophomore Zach Fricke (Arlington Heights, Ill. / Buffalo Grove) and senior Jarrett Hammel (Brook, Ind. / South Newton [Saint Joseph’s College]) figure to factor into the team’s weekend pitching plans. Fricke owned the team lead in victories as only a freshman and was second on the club in MVC-only ERA last year, while Hammel led the team in ERA in 2018 and finished third in 2019. Fifth-year senior Montana Quigley (Lake Forest, Calif. / El Toro) posted a team-best 2.31 ERA in conference play a season ago.
Valpo will have five catchers on the roster in 2020, with Jake Kapers (Schererville, Ind. / Mount Carmel) likely to begin the season as the starter behind the dish. He hit .357 over the final four games of the 2019 regular season to lead the team during that stretch. Another 2019 highlight for Kapers was the May 10-12 series vs. Southern Illinois, when he limited a Saluki team that entered the weekend third in the nation in stolen bases per game to 4-of-9 on the base paths.
While the bulk of the pitching staff is in place, Valpo will look to replace four of the team’s top six batting averages from 2019.
Senior Damon Jorgensen (Blair, Neb. / Blair [Coffeyville]) played 46 games and made 43 starts on the infield last season. He will be joined by a largely new group of infielders that figures to include junior college transfers Troy Jones (Orland Park, Ill. / Carl Sandburg [Triton]) and D.J. Calvert (Edmond, Okla. / Enid Memorial [Northeast Oklahoma-Enid). Freshman Kyle Schmack (Wanatah, Ind. / South Central) will start the season as the starting first baseman, while freshman Nolan Tucker (Cedar Lake, Ind. / Hanover Central) is also in the infield mix. Redshirt sophomore Kevin Barry (Bartlett, Ill. South Elgin) will see time at first base.
“We’re going to play the best nine players to give us a chance to win every day,” Schmack said. “I like our lineup. I think it’s going to be different from last year, when we were top heavy. We played some freshmen last year and those guys have gained experience. We’ve elevated the bottom of our lineup, which should make us a better team overall. We’re not going to be afraid to take walks and find ways to get on base.”
A pair of the team’s most accomplished offensive returnees will roam the outfield of Emory G. Bauer Field this spring.
Senior Riley Dent (Long Beach, Calif. / Wilson) is back after earning All-MVC Honorable Mention a year ago. He batted .290 to post a breakout season after entering the year with a .207 career average through his first two campaigns.
Senior Steven Fitzsimmons (Golden Valley, Minn. / Robbinsdale Cooper) also enjoyed a breakout junior season, playing in 49 of the team’s 50 games and making 45 starts after playing in just 16 games and making three starts as a sophomore. He went from a .195 career hitter with one double over his first two seasons to batting .268 with nine doubles in 2019.
Junior college transfer Jonathan Temple (Turlock, Calif. / Turlock [Modesto JC]) is expected to be the third starter in the outfield, while sophomore Jeremy Drudge (Plymouth, Ind. / Plymouth) will start the season as the fourth outfielder. Senior Christian Barczi (Naperville, Ill. / Naperville North) is the anticipated starter at the designated hitter spot.
“Our defense in the outfield will be extremely good with those guys out there,” Schmack said. “Dent has looked great, and Fitzsimmons has matured to a point where he understands what he brings to the table. Our recipe this season is pitching and getting on base. I like our team; I think we have a good mix.”