After finishing the 2005 regular season in second place in the Mid-Continent Conference and advancing to the title match of the league tournament, hopes are high for the Valparaiso Crusaders as the Brown and Gold are set to begin the 2006 campaign.
A youthful roster for 21st year head coach Jim Daugherty gives the Crusaders a great deal of flexibility as Valpo prepares for yet another tight Mid-Continent Conference race.
Valpo is coming off of a 5-1 conference mark last year and finished 9-13 overall. The Crusaders return eight players from last year's runner-up team and have added one talented freshman in hopes of making a run at the Mid-Continent Conference crown.
A pair of All Mid-Continent Conference juniors should anchor the Crusader lineup for 2006. Nic Kooyers was named to the league's First Team as a sophomore, a year after earning Second Team accolades as a rookie. Playing first and second singles last season, Kooyers posted a 14-15 mark overall and 4-2 in league play.
Joe Venegas, another junior, earned Second Team All Mid-Con accolades from the league's coaches last season. He finished 4-1 in Mid-Con action as a sophomore playing third singles most of the year, and should remain as a mainstay in the lineup this year.
The lone senior on the Valpo squad this year is Evan Roller. The only Crusader not to see action this past fall, he will be primed for the competition as the regular season begins. He has mainly played sixth singles throughout his career with the Brown and Gold.
Junior David Bukowski will find himself in more of an upperclassman's role this season. The transfer from Oakton Community College won 11 of his final 14 singles matches in his first season with the Crusaders, competing in the fourth and fifth spots in the lineup. He won all three Mid-Con matches he played in last year and notched four wins during the past fall in various tournaments.
Four sophomores will also be called upon to help make the 2006 season a success for Valpo. Mike Shideler saw a great deal of action during his rookie season at fourth and fifth singles. He had a very successful doubles campaign as well, playing at the top spot in his first year.
Mike Wagner also was a mainstay in the Valpo lineup last year. He notched an even 12-12 record overall in singles play, mostly in the fifth and sixth positions. This year he will move up the lineup as Daugherty will rely on the underclassmen to come through for the Brown and Gold.
Blain Keller, another of Valpo's sophomores, was utilized more as a doubles specialist in his rookie campaign. He played in the third spot most of the year as well as in invitationals. This past fall he saw action in singles as well, and may be called upon for both roles this year.
Dan Brunette may be one of the most improved players on the squad heading into 2006. Having played in just three singles matches all of 2004-2005, the sophomore notched a 7-4 mark in singles play and a 5-1 doubles record during Valpo's fall campaign.
The lone freshman added to the roster for 2006 will also help make an impact on the squad. Alexander Lau went 6-3 in singles play during the fall semester and combined with Brunette for the 5-1 mark in doubles competition. If he can continue his strong play, he will see a great deal of action in his rookie season with the Brown and Gold.
Valpo has a very challenging schedule in preparation for the Mid-Continent Conference season. The Crusaders will open the campaign on January 28 at Butler and head to Purdue the following day.
The non-conference road slate also sees the Crusaders head to Western Michigan, Ball State, and DePaul before returning home for their first match in Northwest Indiana as Bradley comes to Matchpoint Tennis Center on February 19.
Following a road match at Illinois-Chicago, Valparaiso will head to Florida for its annual spring trip in Kissimmee. The Crusaders have four matches slated on the trip. The Brown and Gold returns to the northern part of the country for a match at Marquette before hosting Dayton, Wisconsin-Green Bay, and IPFW in a four-day span.
The Mid-Continent Conference schedule begins with a cluster in Tulsa, Oklahoma April 7-9 while the Crusaders will host the second cluster at the Valparaiso University Tennis Complex April 13-15. Conference play is key as only the top four schools will qualify for the Mid-Con Tournament in Tulsa on April 21-22.
Valpo has the talent and the depth to make a run for the Mid-Con crown. But with a talented league, competition will be challenging. The non-conference slate is designed to prepare valpo for the challenge. After that, it is just a matter of the players stepping up and competing day after day.