After registering 22 wins in 2006, the most by a Crusader squad in 17 years, the 2007 Valparaiso University softball team is poised for a breakout season.
Head coach Randy Schneider returns all but one player of the 17 that comprised last year's roster, losing only starting left fielder Ann Sievert. Schneider has also brought in four talented newcomers to try to get the Crusaders back to the Mid-Con Tournament in their final season of competition in the league.
Valpo returns all of its pitchers from a staff that posted a team ERA of 2.97 last year, an improvement of 1.29 over the previous year.
Leading the way is junior Andrea Zappia, a second team All Mid-Con selection in 2006. Valpo's relief ace ranked among the league's top-10 in seven different categories, leading the league with 45 appearances and six saves. Her save total is the best in a single-season in Crusader history and gives her nine for her career, most all-time by a Valpo player. Zappia also finished second in the Mid-Con in opponents' batting average (.228) and fourth in ERA (2.41).
Junior Chris Halstead and sophomore Stephanie Kelly saw the vast majority of the starts in the circle for Valpo in 2006, as Halstead earned 24 starts and Kelly 18 out of Valpo's 52 games. Halstead's eight wins ranked seventh in the Mid-Con, while her 2.53 ERA was good for ninth in the league. Kelly posted four wins as a freshman, striking out 73 batters while walking just 24. She closed the season strong, registering a 0.84 ERA over her final six games.
Joining the pitching staff is freshman Carrie Franson, who was twice named Wisconsin Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association Player of the Year. Franson especially excelled as a junior, leading Poynette to a state championship while going 13-0 with a 0.02 ERA and tallying seven no-hitters.
Second team All Mid-Con selection Shannon Robinson returns for her junior year to lead the Crusaders behind the plate. Robinson banged out 51 hits last season, second-most in a single season in Crusader history, and matched the school record with 13 doubles. Robinson led Valpo with a .321 batting average, ninth-best in the league, and 24 RBIs. On the defensive side, the junior threw out 41.3% of base runners trying to steal last year and picked off eight other runners.
Allison Whitesell also returns after starting four games behind the plate and nine games overall last season. The senior hit .206 in 34 at-bats last year. Freshman Whitney Warner will join the mix for 2007, looking to earn time both behind the plate and as the designated player. Warner set an Indiana state record for career putouts while earning all-state honors twice.
The Crusaders return all four starters on the infield, including seniors Beth Adamski and Taylor Callahan at first and third base, respectively.
Callahan earned second team all-conference honors last year after hitting .261 with 25 runs scored while starting all 52 games, 49 at third base. The senior has started 156 games in her first three seasons, and is among Valpo's all-time leaders in assists, runs scored and home runs. She tallied 11 extra-base hits among her 42 hits last season.
Adamski has started 152 games in her career, including 49 last year at first base. She hit .228 with seven doubles last year for Valpo, giving her 15 career two-base hits. On defense, she is second in Crusader history and 14th in Mid-Con history with 868 putouts.
Junior Alicia Ashburn enters 2007 as the incumbent starting second baseman. Ashburn hit a team-high five home runs last year and finished second on the team with 19 runs scored. Fellow junior Mallory Gill started 49 games at shortstop for the Crusaders in 2006, hitting .220 with five doubles.
Junior Courtney LaFerle moves to shortstop, where she started 13 games as a freshman, after seeing the majority of her playing time in the outfield last year. LaFerle hit .255 last season with nine doubles and 17 RBIs.
Backing up the infielders will be sophomore Bethany Boomer. Six of Boomer's 13 starts as a freshman came at second base, and she saw action in 36 games, making 56 plate appearances.
The Crusaders return two outfield starters for the 2007 campaign, led by senior Megan Carroll. Carroll made 24 starts last year in right field before suffering a season-ending injury. She was enjoying a stellar campaign at the time of the injury, hitting at a .410 clip with nine extra-base hits in just 78 at-bats.
Karen Korb returns for her sophomore year after earning the starting nod in center field 45 times last year. Korb excelled on the basepaths, stealing 16 bases, fourth-most in a season in Valpo history. She also handled the bat well, laying down 20 sacrifices, and led all regulars with a .361 on-base percentage.
First team All Mid-Con honoree Ashley Wolter will likely see playing time at designated player and in the outfield. As a freshman, Wolter slugged .434 in 76 at-bats while starting 26 games, including 12 at the outfield corners.
Joining the outfielders for 2007 will be junior college transfer Tracy Korth. Korth comes to Valpo from Elgin Community College, where she was a two-time Skyway Conference All-League honoree and earned league Player of the Year honors in 2006. Fellow newcomer Kristyna Hix looks to play as a freshman after leading her high school squad to a district championship in 2006.
Junior Kayla Grutz moves to the outfield after pitching and pinch-running in her first two seasons. Senior Jessica Schultz returns after not playing in 2006, while Ashburn, LaFerle and Robinson could all also see time in the outfield.
Valpo kicks off the 2007 campaign March 4 versus Detroit at the Rebel Spring Games, one of 12 games the Crusaders will be playing in Orlando, Fla. On the way back from Orlando, the Crusaders will stop to play doubleheaders at Gardner-Webb and East Tennessee State.
Other non-conference action includes nine games against Indiana schools, including a doubleheader March 28 against Purdue to kick off the home season. Valpo will travel to Notre Dame for a game on April 4, while also making the trek to East Lansing, Mich. to play two games against Michigan State on May 3.
Valpo's final Mid-Continent Conference slate will begin March 23-24 with a series at UMKC. The Crusaders will host Southern Utah, IUPUI and Western Illinois, while also traveling to take on Oakland and Centenary. The Mid-Con Tournament will be hosted by Centenary in Shreveport, La., beginning May 11.
The Crusaders return experience all around the diamond at every position, as well as in the dugout, where Schneider became Valpo's all-time winningest coach late last season. The pieces are in place for Valpo to contend for one of the top spots in the Mid-Con in its final season in the league.