Coming off of a record-setting 2009 campaign, the Valparaiso softball team is taking aim at even bigger and better things as it prepares for the start of the 2010 season.
The Crusaders as a team broke seven single-season records last year, while eight individual single-season marks fell as well as Valpo captured 25 victories in 2009 and finished above .500 for the second straight season. Now, with 14 letterwinners back from last year’s squad along with five newcomers, the Crusaders are ready to move up into the top echelon of Horizon League squads.
Head coach Randy Schneider returns for his seventh season at the helm of the Crusader program, coming off of a 25-win season last year that saw Valpo break a multitude of offensive records. The winningest coach in Crusader softball history, Schneider has won at least 20 games in five of his first six seasons, a mark which was reached just three times in the program’s first 22 years.
Assistant coach Scott Goodwin is back for his second year after helping transform the Crusader effort at the plate in 2009. Rachel Folden joins the staff for her first season as well. A current National Pro Fastpitch standout for the Chicago Bandits, Folden was a four-time All-American while playing at Marshall and brings coaching experience from NAIA Holy Names University, where she served as hitting coach and pitching/catching coach.
The Crusaders have a set of five outfielders heading into the 2010 campaign, two of whom were full-time starters a year ago.
Junior Jill Jacobson started 46 times as a sophomore for Valpo, mostly in left field, and hit .312 on the season. Jacobson raised her average in Horizon League play to .350 and drove in 27 runs on the season, fifth-most in a single season in team history. She also set a new Crusader single-season record with five sacrifice flies, which tied for fourth nationally.
Sophomore Sara Strickland appeared in every game last year as a rookie. Strickland played mostly at second base in 2009, but will move back to her natural outfield position this year. She was named the Horizon League Newcomer of the Year and a First Team All-League performer after breaking Valpo’s single-season runs scored record, scoring 46 runs in the Crusaders’ 49 games. Strickland finished second in the league in runs, on base percentage, doubles and stolen bases, and moved into Valpo’s single-season top-five in all three categories, as well as batting average, hits, walks and total bases.
Juniors KC Boldt and Jamie Weinburger are both expected to challenge for more playing time this season after serving mainly as pinch-runners in their first two seasons. Boldt scored 11 runs in 30 appearances last year, while Weinburger was a perfect 13-for-13 in stolen bases and scored nine times in 30 games. Freshman Hayley Bridwell also will look to earn playing time as a rookie after a standout prep career at Lemont [Ill.] H.S.
“Our outfield is extremely deep and all five of these players will make an impact,” said Schneider. “We truly feel that all five can hit .300+ at this level and if I were to predict, I think they can combine, by season’s end, to have 50 extra base hits and over 70 stolen bases between them. They are all exciting players to watch.”
A number of Crusaders, both some with playing experience and some newcomers to the program, will challenge to see action at the four infield spots in 2010.
Junior Sadie Conner and sophomore Kelsey Phalen are in the mix at both corner infield spots this year for Valpo. Conner is coming off a 2009 season, where she played mainly at first base, in which she hit .362 in Horizon League play and finished fourth in the league with 11 doubles, tied for eighth-most in a single year all-time at Valpo. Phalen hit .294 on the season, including .300 in league play, in an abbreviated freshman campaign, playing primarily at shortstop.
Sophomore Alex Lagesse is also in the running to see time at first base after a freshman year in which she hit .314 in 51 at-bats, seeing action at designated player and pinch-hitting. Sophomore Jordan Rutkowski is the incumbent starter at third base, where she hit .322 as a rookie and moved onto Valpo’s single-season top-ten charts in on-base percentage, hits and walks, while freshman Jennifer Hermanson will also look for time at the hot corner after twice earning All-State accolades at Beecher [Ill.] H.S.
Hermanson is also in the mix at second base, along with sophomore Joylyn Ichiyama, who was an All-Newcomer selection last year after a freshman campaign where she hit .303 overall and .321 in league play. Ichiyama blasted six home runs on the year, tied for fourth in a single season in Valpo history, and also drove in 26 runs. Freshmen Tori Brown, a three-time All-Conference recipient at Harrison [Ohio] H.S., and Jessie Marinec, named one of the Top 100 Chicago area players by both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, look to challenge for the shortstop job.
“Overall, this is the most athletic infield Valpo has had in the past 6 years,” said Schneider. “All of these players can play ball for us and all are working extremely hard. We are poised to have one of our best defensive years in 2010. Depth has always been an issue with the injuries that plague the game, so we have worked hard at making our kids more versatile to position play and we have concentrated at making them more athletic (stronger and more balanced) which we hope reduces possible injury in the future.”
Four different options behind the plate give the Crusaders plenty of options in the back half of the battery entering the 2010 campaign.
Conner and Rutkowski also can earn time calling the signals in addition to their playing time in the infield. Also in the mix at catcher is senior Whitney Warner, who made 34 starts at catcher a year ago and hit .284 on the season. Junior Lisa DeBruzzi started the other 15 games behind the plate for the Crusaders last season and posted a .987 fielding percentage.
“This is the one area we have concentrated on going into the 2010 season and an area we feel very good about starting our here in February,” said Schneider. “Overall, we feel great about our battery. Our entire staff feels that our battery will be a strongpoint to our 2010 season, and a large part of that is due to the work by our catchers.”
Valpo gets set for 2010 with the ability to show opponents plenty of different looks in the circle, as six pitchers are on its roster entering the season.
Lagesse and Jacobson both can showcase their ability with the ball in their hand in addition to at the plate. Lagesse appeared in 17 games at pitcher as a freshman, including 12 starts, and went 5-5 with a 3.41 ERA, 11th in the Horizon League. She allowed opponents to hit just .283 off of her, sixth-best among league players, and gave up just 1.3 walks per seven innings. Meanwhile, Jacobson took to the circle four times as a sophomore, including one start.
Sophomores Shaleigh Jansen and Sam McGee both return after gaining plenty of experience in the circle as rookies. Jansen appeared 13 times as a freshman, making six starts, and went 3-3 with a 4.80 ERA. All three of her wins came in Horizon League play, as she carried a perfect 3-0 mark against league foes. McGee started 15 games and came in as a reliever six times in 2009, closing the campaign with a 9-5 record and a 3.25 ERA. Her nine wins were good for ninth in the Horizon League, while her ERA ranked tenth among league pitchers.
Senior Carrie Franson has the ability to earn some innings in middle relief this year after an injury-plagued junior year that saw her make just one appearance. Redshirt freshman Amanda Bolton comes to Valpo after a stellar prep career at Horizon [Ariz.] H.S., where she was teammates with Strickland. Bolton was a Second Team All-State pitcher as a senior for the Huskies.
“Overall, our pitching is deep and confident,” said Schneider. “We feel better than we ever have in the circle. What excites us the most is that with six pitchers, one of these young ladies will emerge and become a dominant pitcher. But at this time, we have no clue which one it will be, because each of these ladies is getting better everyday.”
The 58-game season begins this weekend at the Ramada UNI-Dome Classic, where Valpo will face Dayton, North Dakota, and South Dakota in addition to the host Panthers. The tournament will mark the earliest start to a Crusader softball season in program history.
The Crusaders then hit the road for a massive trip, playing 19 games in a 16-day span. The journey kicks off Feb. 27 at Tennessee State’s Tiger Spring Classic, also featuring Alabama A&M and Indiana State. Valpo will then play games at the Rebel Spring Games in Orlando, Fla. against Holy Cross (twice), Dayton and Saint Francis (Pa.) before traveling to Auburn’s War Eagle Classic, where it will play Gardner-Webb, Tennessee State and Alabama in addition to the host Tigers.
From there, Valpo heads to Huntington, W.V. for a doubleheader March 9 at Marshall, alma mater of Folden. The trip concludes at Kansas’ KU Invitational, where the Crusaders will face off against the host Jayhawks three times and play versus Missouri State twice.
The home slate at the Valparaiso University Softball Field kicks off March 17 with a non-league doubleheader against Western Illinois. The Crusaders are also slated to play home twinbills against Northern Illinois and IUPUI outside of league play, while traveling to IPFW and Purdue for doubleheaders and Notre Dame for a single game.
The Horizon League schedule begins with a three-game series against Green Bay at home, with two games March 27 and a single contest March 28. Valpo will play three-game series against each of the other eight league schools, also hosting Butler, Loyola and Youngstown State while hitting the road to play Detroit, UIC, Wright State and Cleveland State. The top six finishers in the league regular season standings will advance to the Horizon League Championship, to be contested May 13-15 at the regular season champion. The tournament champion will earn the league’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.