Just moments after the final whistle of the 2016 season cut the air, the excitement for the 2017 Valparaiso University football team began to build.
The Crusaders, who will bring back the bulk of their key players on both offense and defense, are poised to take the next step after finishing with their highest Pioneer Football League win total since 2003 and equaling their highest overall win total since 2007.
Each spring under head coach Dave Cecchini, Valpo players have been energetic to get back on the field. But with this year’s spring slate set to get started on Wednesday, there’s an added enthusiasm among a group that will be Valpo’s most experienced of the Cecchini era.
“The team is very optimistic, very excited,” Cecchini said. “The energy level is very high. There’s a level of wisdom that is a product of experience. We have a lot of players who have been through the system on offense and defense. The younger players have played an awful lot for us. This spring more than any other, we’re going to be able to move quickly because our guys have the recall that comes with experience.”
Rising sophomore Jimmy Seewald (Livonia, Mich. / Divine Child) is back at quarterback after throwing for 1,443 yards and 13 touchdowns in 10 games in 2016. A pair of other rising sophomores in Chris Duncan (Woodland Hills, Calif. / Woodland Hills-Taft) and Grant Papenfuss (North Palm Beach, Fla. / Cardinal Newman) will also take snaps under center this spring.
“We’re looking for Jimmy to take the next step and avoid a sophomore slump,” Cecchini said. “He’s going to get pushed by two other freshmen quarterbacks who are going to be breathing down his neck every step of the way. They’re talented players as well.”
Jarrett Morgan (Cooper City, Fla. / Cooper City) is back for his senior season after running for 632 yards and two touchdowns on 156 carries in 2016. He’ll be joined at the tailback spot by a trio of rising sophomores in Kyle Cartales (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. / Cardinal Newman), Cody Boxrucker (West Chester, Ohio / Badin) and Austin Petrie (Livonia, Mich. / Stevenson), all of whom turned heads at times during their rookie campaigns.
The wide receiving group is also seasoned, with the team’s top two receivers statistically, Frank Catrine (Springboro, Ohio / Bishop Fenwick) and Jean Rene (Delray Beach, Fla. / Wellington Community), back for their senior and junior campaigns, respectively.
On special teams, rising sophomore Bailey Gessinger (Goshen, Ind. / Northwood) had two kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2016, one of just three players in the nation to do so. He was named to the all Pioneer Football League second-team following the season. Jake Simpson (Wyandotte, Mich. / Roosevelt) is expected to return at kicker after going 5-of-8 on field-goal tries including a 45-yarder in his first year as the team’s starter. Alex Ng (Royal Palm Beach, Fla. / Wellington Community) will be back for his junior season after averaging 37.7 yards per punt as a sophomore.
An-already strong defense will receive a boost from defensive back J.J. Nunes (Baltimore, Md. / Baltimore Lutheran), who was recently awarded an additional year of eligibility from the NCAA after missing the 2016 season due to a knee injury. The team’s top five tacklers from 2016 – Drew Snouffer (Columbus, Ohio / Upper Arlington), Kellan Hughes (Cicero, Ind. / Hamilton Heights), Joey Diaz-Martinez (Miramar, Fla. / Miramar), Nick Turner (Gurnee, Ill. / Warren Township) and Kye Hall (New Smyrna Beach, Fla. / New Smyrna), are all expected to be back.
The Crusaders had 85 players participate in offseason workouts, allowing them to implement a unique competition within the team. The coaching staff devised a scoring system as the players drafted eight teams, with a leadership council member serving as the captain of each team. Everything the team has done in the offseason has been competitive, from improvement in the weight room to conditioning drills to community service and academic success.
“It’s made our team tighter,” Cecchini said. “It’s improved the team bonding, and it’s also really improved the leadership development with players taking more ownership and helping their squads rise up. It’s an interesting mix where each team has a variety of classes and position groups represented.”
The system has produced tangible results for the team.
“We’ve had a lot of strength gains over the offseason, which was a huge priority for us,” Cecchini said. “We knew we were going to have a lot of experienced players coming back, and sometimes guys that are already starters aren’t as motivated in the weight room. Our players have done an outstanding job.”
The Crusaders will hold 15 spring practices, including the annual Spring Game on Saturday, April 22 at 11 a.m. at Brown Field.
“We’re thrilled with where we’re at,” Cecchini said. “We’re still not there, we have a lot of work to do, but I think the morale of the team is high. Everybody is excited to start putting on the pads and getting after each other in the spring practices.”
Valparaiso Football Spring Schedule
Wednesday, March 29
Friday, March 31
Saturday, April 1
Monday, April 3
Wednesday, April 5
Friday, April 7
Saturday, April 8
Monday, April 10
Wednesday, April 12
Friday, April 14
Monday, April 17
Wednesday, April 19
Friday, April 21
Saturday, April 22 (Spring Game at 11 a.m.)
Monday, April 24
*A full spring roster will be made available for the spring game.