2006 is a time for the Crusaders to prove what they learned a season ago. With a schedule ranked in the top 60 in the nation, the Brown and Gold won just 12 games in 2005, but Head Coach Randy Schneider hopes the reward for their lumps in 2005 is a terrific 2006. Last year's team went 0-22 out of the gate but never gave up, fighting tough through their schedule and reaping some significant dividends later in the season. The returning core of players were a big part of last year's four-game sweep of conference champ Southern Utah, a win against UIC for the first time in 39 tries, and a 4-4 tie with Purdue.
The Brown and Gold return eight offensive starters from a season ago, including all four of their All-Conference performers. The talented group of freshman and sophomores from last season are now sophomores and juniors, and this year's group is still young with only one senior.
The pitching staff should be the anchor of this year's squad, with three returning hurlers set to fire from the circle. Chris Halstead, a 2005 Second Team All-Conference star as a freshman returns for a much-anticipated sophomore season. The Indianapolis native carried an ERA of 2.41 in conference play and is poised to become one of the elite pitchers in the Mid-Con.
Andrea Zappia, who tied Valpo's single-season saves record last season is back, too, adding velocity and movement to her pitches during the off-season. Fellow sophomore Kayla Grutz is the third returnee, coming off a fine fall season and adding confidence with every appearance.
Freshman Stephanie Kelly should also step right into the fire, bringing a prolific high school resume to Valpo. As a prep star, Kelly finished her career with one of the top 15 strikeout totals in Illinois history.
And for the three returning pitchers, there will be some familiar faces behind the plate, with the Crusaders welcoming back all three of their catchers from 2005. Shannon Robinson, a sophomore, anchors that group, and is coming off a tremendous fall season where she batted over .500.
Junior Allison Whitesell is back for her third season and will serve as Robinson's main backup, with sophomore utility wiz Courtney LaFerle also able to crouch behind the dish as needed.
Around the diamond, the Brown and Gold return all four of their starting infielders, headed up by First Team All-Conference third baseman Taylor Callahan. A shortstop in her freshman season, Callahan moved to third base last year and had a breakout season both offensively and defensively. The native Georgian committed only four errors at the hot corner and led the team with 16 RBI.
To her left again is shortstop Mallory Gill, a sophomore. Gill is one of the hardest working players on the team and is continuing to get better. The same can be said for her classmate Alicia Ashburn, penciled in to start the season at second base. Ashburn got better as last year went along, improving her batting average 56 points in Mid-Con play.
First base should be another strength in 2006, with two-year starter Beth Adamski ready to put it all together in her junior season. Adamski has made tremendous strides in the off-season and is one of Valpo's most potent power threats, with three career home runs.
LaFerle, a Second Team All-Conference selection in 2005, will fill in at every spot on the infield, and had an excellent 2005 at the plate with 10 extra base hits and 13 RBI. Freshman Bethany Boomer will also be counted on to add depth on the infield.
The Crusader captain and lone senior, Ann Sievert, will anchor a solid outfield in 2006. Sievert finished 2005 as one of Valpo's top hitters and is a terrific leader on and off the field.
Another tested veteran, junior Megan Carroll, will start in the outfield for the third straight season. A 2005 Second Team All-Mid-Con choice, Carroll was the Crusaders' top hitter last year, improving her lifetime batting average 150 points by batting .303 and setting a school record with 13 doubles.
The other outfield spot will be occupied by a freshman, as newcomers Karen Korb and Ashley Wolter will compete for the final spot. Korb, the fastest Crusader, won an Indiana State Championship as a high school junior and is a naturally gifted athlete. Wolter is a dangerous power hitter who also boasts an outstanding glove in the outfield.
So now the time has come. The time for this team to make last year's learning experiences worthwhile and put together one of the best seasons in Valpo history. And Coach Schneider thinks he's got just the group to do it.