After reaching the championship round of the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament in 2004, the Valparaiso Crusaders have raised their expectations heading into the 2005 season.
Head coach Randy Schneider's squad is young, with just three upperclass returnees on the roster. However, despite the youthfulness of the team, the Crusaders are an athletic group of players that have balance across the diamond. Valpo is talented at every position on the field, and hopes the offense, defense, and pitching gel together in the quest for a Mid-Continent Conference title this season.
Valpo sports a young but talented pitching staff. Senior Brittany Atteberry will be relied upon for her experience to help guide the rest of the staff. Last season she came out of the bullpen in 20 of her 31 appearances for the Crusaders. Valpo's only other returnee in the circle is Ashlee Blankenbaker. The sophomore is recovering from off-season surgery, and will look to return to the form she opened last season with, where she finished with a 2.02 earned run average. A trio of freshmen round out the rotation for the Crusaders. Kayla Grutz, Chris Halstead, and Andrea Zappia each have their own pitching style, and will be looked upon to step up and help Valpo in the circle.
Behind the plate the Crusaders are looking for someone to step up and take over the position. Sophomore Allison Whitesell along with freshmen Shannon Robinson and Courtney LaFerle all are vying for the starting role this season.
Valpo's infield will be one of the program's strengths in 2005. Mid-Con All-Tournament Team member Taylor Callahan along with Beth Adamski both started more than 50 games as freshmen and will help solidify the corner positions for the Crusaders this season. Senior Amy Mitchell is recovering from injury, but will probably miss most of the year.
In the middle infield, freshmen Alicia Ashburn and Stacy Adamski will battle for the second base job to open the year. Both have a great deal of speed and will contribute on the basepaths for the Brown and Gold. At shortstop, LaFerle and Mallory Gill are battling for the starting job. Both have solid gloves and a great deal of range that will be a key to the Crusaders success in the infield.
Valpo's outfield will have quality depth at all three positions this season. Kelly Silvey moves from the infield and has made the offseason adjustment fairly easily. The senior enters her final year after finishing second on the team in stolen bases last season. Junior college transfer Ann Sievert is a solid addition to the Valpo outfield as well. The NFCA Junior College All-American is quick and adds range to the outfield.
Sophomores Megan Carroll and Jessica Schultz both have a year's worth of experience under their belt for Schneider, and both are much improved from their rookie season. Emily Tkaczyk, a freshman, has the potential to be an offensive threat for the Crusaders, and will compete for time in the outfield as will Maggie Seidel.
Offensively, Valpo has a line-up that has a great deal of speed. Over the second half of the 2004 season the Crusaders proved that they were able to score runs, and will look for that late season success to carry over this year.
Valpo's schedule is certainly a challenging one as the Crusaders have numerous NCAA Tournament Teams from 2004 on the slate this year. The Brown and Gold open the season March 5-6 at the Southern Illinois Classic in Carbondale, facing the host Salukis along with Ball State and Kansas. The following weekend, the Crusaders venture to the Shocker Invitational at Wichita State to compete with a field that includes Texas Tech and Nebraska in addition to the hosts. Sandwiched between the tournaments is a trip to Norman, Oklahoma for a doubleheader against the Sooners, a Women's College World Series participant.
The Crusaders' non-conference slate also features games against Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State, DePaul, and Illinois-Chicago. Valpo opens its 2005 Mid-Con schedule March 25 and 26 at Centenary and it will culminate with the Mid-Con Tournament May 13 and 14 in Kansas City, Missouri.
If Valpo's youthful squad becomes veterans quickly while playing the challenging schedule, the Crusaders should be able to contend for the Mid-Con crown at season's end.