The Valparaiso University softball program has been on the upswing the past few years, climbing to a school record-tying 27 victories last season while setting team single-season records for home runs, runs batted in, slugging percentage and stolen bases. The Crusaders will look to continue their upward momentum in 2008 as they enter the Horizon League, as head coach Randy Schneider returns his entire pitching staff, along with six starting position players.
Schneider returns in 2008 for his fifth season at the helm of the Crusader team. In his first four years, he has successfully changed the attitude surrounding the program, creating an expectation of winning that has paid off in the won/loss column. Not only did the 2007 squad win 27 games to tie a school record, it marked Schneider’s third 20-win season in his first four seasons at Valpo, tying the number of 20-win seasons in the first 22 years of the program.
Schneider brings in Amy Wittgenstein as an assistant coach this year, working primarily with the outfielders and catchers. Wittgenstein previously served as a graduate assistant for one year at South Dakota State after starting for four seasons at catcher for the Jackrabbits. Returning to the Crusader coaching staff as an assistant coach is Daniel Amling, who had previously coached two years as a volunteer assistant at Valpo.
One of the strengths of the 2008 Crusader squad will be its pitching staff, as all four hurlers from last year’s team return, along with the addition of one newcomer.
“Our pitching should be the best it has been since my arrival at Valparaiso,” said Schneider. “We have five pitchers that, in my opinion, can pitch on any given day. This depth allows us to do so many things as each pitcher comes in with a different strength, motion and arsenal.”
Two three-year contributors in the circle are back for their final season in a Crusader uniform. Andrea Zappia moved into more of a dual role last year, starting 16 games and entering in relief in 14 others after starting just 16 of her 74 appearances in her first two seasons. Zappia picked up eight wins and five saves with a 2.76 ERA in 2007 and struck out 130 batters, third-most in a single season all-time at Valpo. Her 14 career saves are best in team history and are tied for 14th-most in NCAA Division I history.
Chris Halstead has made 66 career starts for Valpo, picking up a career-best 10 victories last season while carrying a 3.57 ERA. Halstead has won 24 games in her first three seasons as a Crusader, tied for fourth-most in program history and just six wins shy of the third spot.
“Andrea has improved every year she has been at Valpo,” said Schneider. “Her national ranking in career saves speaks highly of her ability to come into tight situations and get the job done, and she enters this season in the best shape of her life. Chris simply gets outs when she’s in the circle. She will not overpower batters, but changes speeds, has good movement and gets good results.”
Junior Stephanie Kelly has been a vital part of the Crusader pitching staff in her first two years at Valpo. Last season, she started 12 games and made 13 relief appearances, going 9-6 with a 2.78 ERA. An overpowering pitcher, Kelly registered 87 strikeouts in just 98 innings pitched last year. The final returnee in the circle is sophomore Carrie Franson, who allowed batters to hit just .231 against her in six appearances as a freshman.
“Steph is a competitor,” said Schneider. “I love it when she is on the mound. She is my most prepared pitcher, as she studies the game and hitters and learns something new every inning. We expect her to be a dominant pitcher in 2008. Carrie is one of our strongest pitchers, which is evident in her velocity. She has worked very hard this past year to get the opportunity to throw in 2008, and we believe she can make a difference for us.”
Joining the four returning hurlers is freshman Jill Jacobson. Jacobson, who played at Beecher H.S. in Illinois, has not pitched since her sophomore year of high school and spends most of her time working with the outfielders. But, according to Schneider, “Jill works out with the pitchers and has proven she can provide relief innings when needed. At 5’11” with great athletic ability, she definitely has the mechanics and confidence to help our staff.”
Two catchers return from the 2007 Crusader squad and are joined by a freshman to give Valpo three options behind the dish this season.
The heart of the Valpo batting order is senior Shannon Robinson. Robinson started every game last season in the three-spot in the lineup, setting a school record with 58 hits and batting at a .392 clip on the season. Her 31 runs scored in 2007 were tied for third-most in a single season in Valpo history. A three-year starter behind the plate, Robinson enters the 2008 campaign poised to break Crusader career records for hits, doubles and total bases.
“We are excited to have Shannon back for her senior season,” said Schneider. “She is one of our most decorated players. A very good defensive catcher, she only gave up 23 steals last year. Shannon really has a great understanding of the game.”
Sophomore Whitney Warner returns after making 38 appearances as a freshman, starting 27 times, mostly at designated player. Warner drove in 17 runs for the Crusaders last year in just 80 at-bats and also showed a good eye at the plate, walking 12 times.
“Whitney is a workhorse; she gives 100% to everything she does,” said Schneider. “We are hoping offensively that she will be more of a factor in 2008, as she is a tough strikeout and swings a big bat.”
Freshman Lisa DeBruzzi will also provide depth behind the plate this season. DeBruzzi, who hails from Carlisle, Mass., was a two-time First Team All-State performer for Concord-Carlisle H.S. and helped lead the Patriots to the state semifinals as a junior.
“Lisa is one of our strongest players in the weight room at 5’9”,” said Schneider. “She is athletic and has great speed for such a physical player.”
Three senior starters anchor the Crusader infield entering the 2008 season.
A three-year starter returns in the middle infield in the form of Alicia Ashburn. Ashburn batted .270 in 2007 while starting 42 games, primarily at second base. A threat to go deep every time up to bat, Ashburn slugged four home runs as a junior, giving her nine career long balls, fifth-best in Crusader history.
“Alicia has gotten better every year she has been here at Valpo,” said Schneider. “She has over 130 games of experience at second base, and with her experience and range should be as good as any 2B in the league.”
Senior Courtney LaFerle looks to bounce back from a season-ending injury suffered mid-season in 2007. LaFerle, who started each of Valpo’s first 21 games at shortstop, will move across the infield to play first base this season. She split time between the cleanup spot and fifth spot in the batting lineup, hitting .297 with 14 RBIs in just 64 at-bats.
“Courtney is our leader on the field,” said Schneider. “She has a great glove, strong arm and good knowledge of the game. Offensively, she has potential to be a .320-.350 hitter this season.”
Senior Mallory Gill appeared in 14 contests, starting 10 times, in 2007 prior to a season-ending injury of her own. She saw action at both first base and shortstop as a junior and did not commit an error in the field in 67 chances. Junior Katie Williams enters her first season as a Crusader after playing two years at Kishwaukee C.C. A two-time All-Conference performer, Williams was named First Team All-Region last season.
“I believe we have two players who can take the field for us at shortstop,” said Schneider. “Mallory has over 75 games of experience there and has a career fielding percentage over .950, while Katie has been very impressive in our preseason practices. We are confident with either one of them at shortstop.”
Three freshmen also join the 2008 Crusader squad on the infield. Sadie Conner comes to Valpo from Washington, Ill., where she was a Third Team All-State honoree as a senior. KC Boldt, out of Red Wing, Minn., earned All-Area honors four times and was named to the Southern Minnesota All-Star team in 2007, while Aubrey Sundling, who hails from Huntington, Ind., earned Fourth Team All-State accolades in her senior season.
“One concern this season is filling the vacant position at third base after Taylor Callahan graduated,” said Schneider. “Sadie is the front-runner to do so right now, as she’s had a great fall season and has proven she can play the sport right now. Katie will also compete for the starting job at third base. Both K.C. and Aubrey are strong, athletic and fast, and both will get their opportunities to prove themselves this season.”
Three experienced upperclassmen lead the Crusader outfield corps entering the 2008 campaign.
Senior Tracy Korth begins her second year as a Crusader in 2008. Korth started 40 games in her first season donning the Brown and Gold, scoring 20 runs while hitting at a .211 clip as a junior.
“Tracy is one of our more versatile players athletically,” said Schneider. “She has great speed and reads the ball off the bat very well. She has worked hard entering her final year, and we believe she can be an All-Conference performer this season.”
The fastest Crusader, junior Karen Korb returns in center field. Korb is just two stolen bases shy of setting Valpo’s career record in the category after swiping 20 bases in just 23 tries as a sophomore. She also successfully switched to the left side of the plate last year, hitting at a .263 clip in the 2-hole in the lineup while scoring 26 runs.
“Karen has taken over center field for us,” said Schneider. “Because of her speed, it is so tough for opponents to hit gapers when she’s patrolling center. With a year’s experience hitting from the left side of the plate, Karen is much improved and athletically has the potential to have a great season.”
Junior Ashley Wolter, who earned First Team All-Conference honors as a freshman, also returns in the outfield. Wolter hit .263 in 41 starts last year while showcasing her power at the plate, swatting 13 extra-base hits and slugging at a .447 clip.
“Ashley is our strongest player, with a 3-lift total of over 1,000 pounds,” said Schneider. “This strength and power aids her speed, balance and explosiveness. She is entering this season very, very strong.”
Senior Kayla Grutz made the transition from the pitchers’ circle prior to last season. Grutz served as a valuable asset off the bench as a pinch-runner in 2007, swiping four bases and scoring eight runs.
“Kayla is a player that will help you win,” said Schneider. “She understands her role and can play if needed. Her work ethic is undeniable.”
Joining the four returnees are Jamie Weinburger and Jenna Campos, along with Jill Jacobson. Weinburger comes from Eagle River, Alaska, where she helped lead the Wolves to the state championship in 2006. Campos, from Mt. Prospect, Ill., was named an All-Area performer by the Chicago Sun-Times and was awarded Second Team All-State honors by the Chicago Tribune.
“Jamie and Jill are two of the most athletic players on the team,” said Schneider. “Jamie ranks all-time as one of the top performers in the SPARQ rating. She is one of the fastest team members, as well as having a vertical of 27”. Jill is a power-hitting lefty at the plate who we need to find space for on the field in some capacity. Jenna has battled injuries throughout her career, but shows great promise after a stellar high school career as one of the Chicago area’s leading hitters.”
The Crusaders’ 2008 schedule gives the team many opportunities early in the season to tune up for the start of conference play, and is set up to have the team peaking for the Horizon League Championship.
Valpo kicks off the season February 21 at the Tulsa Invitational, one of four pre-conference tournaments the team will take part in. The first week of March sees the Crusaders make their annual journey down to Florida to take part in the Rebel Spring Games. Valpo will then spend a weekend apiece at the Kentucky Frostbite Classic and the Maryland Spring Break Classic.
Horizon League action begins when the Crusaders return home, as Green Bay invades the Valparaiso University Softball Field for a three-game set March 22-23. Loyola, Butler and Youngstown State will each visit Valpo in the team’s first season of league play, while the Crusaders will travel to Detroit, UIC, Wright State and Cleveland State during the league slate.
Valpo will also host three non-conference foes at the VU Softball Field, as Ball State and Northern Illinois will each visit for a doubleheader in late March. Notre Dame is also scheduled to come to Valpo for a single game on May 1. Non-conference road action includes a doubleheader at national power DePaul on April 3, along with doubleheaders at Central Michigan and IPFW. The Horizon League Softball Championship is scheduled for May 8-11 in Chicago, Ill.
“We are truly excited about the upcoming season,” said Schneider. “The opportunity to move into the Horizon League makes for a new experience. Our schedule this year is a little different than the past, as we’re playing a lot more games early on to prepare ourselves for the rigors of league play. This team is hungry to show we can compete, and I’m extremely proud of the hard work these young ladies have put in already and their commitment to see our program get stronger.”