Valparaiso broke out the bats in a big way Wednesday afternoon, busting out for a combined 25 runs and 30 hits in 17-6 and 8-5 victories over Northern Illinois in DeKalb, Ill., extending the Crusaders' program record winning streak to 13 games.
“We knew NIU was going to be a good test for us coming into today,” said Crusader head coach Jordan Stevens. “We knew that they had a very strong offense and knew that their pitchers, although their ERAs are higher because of the teams they've faced, would be a good challenge for us. I was pleased with the way we jumped out on them right away and put pressure on them through both games today. I think a good thing for us is that we didn't sit on anything today. We continued to produce throughout the day, and weren't just complacent or content with putting up a few runs early and staying there.”
The Crusaders started the offensive onslaught in the opener in relatively tranquil fashion, scoring two runs in the top of the first despite not having a ball hit out of the infield. Back-to-back NIU errors opened the game, and an infield single by junior Sara Strickland (Scottsdale, Ariz./Horizon) loaded the bases with nobody out. A groundout by junior Jordan Rutkowski (Alden, N.Y./Alden) and another infield single down the third-base line by senior Sadie Conner (Washington, Ill./Washington) each plated runs as Valpo claimed a quick 2-0 lead.
Freshman Amanda Wisniewski (Lake in the Hills, Ill./Huntley) and sophomore Hayley Bridwell (Lemont, Ill./Lemont) led off the second inning with consecutive singles, and both eventually scored on a single by senior KC Boldt (Red Wing, Minn./Red Wing) for a 4-0 lead after two frames. The Crusaders added two more runs in the fifth as Rutkowski led off with an infield single and Conner followed with a home run off the left-field foul pole, her first long ball of the season.
Then Valpo added a crooked number to its score in the sixth inning. With one out, Boldt singled up the middle and Rutkowski followed with a double to the left-center gap. Neither Crusader would require any help getting home, as back-to-back wild pitches scored both runs to increase the lead to 8-0. The train kept rolling, as Conner followed the second of the two wild pitches with a single to left-center, and junior Kelsey Phalen (Batavia, Ill./Batavia) walked to put two aboard for sophomore Tori Brown (Harrison, Ohio/Harrison). Brown took a 1-2 pitch and launched a home run deep to left-center field, giving Valpo a double-digit advantage at 11-0 through five and a half innings.
With a run rule victory in sight, however, the Huskies fought back, scoring four in the bottom of the sixth, the latter two coming on a Crusader error with two outs, to force the game into the seventh inning. Valpo took advantage of another chance to bat, however, posting another crooked number on the board. With the bases loaded and one out, Phalen was hit by a pitch and Brown followed by drawing a walk to each drive in a run and make it 13-4 Valpo.
Wisniewski then singled into right field and advanced all the way to third on an NIU error, clearing the bases and plating three runs. The freshman then scored on an RBI groundout by sophomore Jennifer Hermanson (Beecher, Ill./Beecher) to close the six-run frame. The Huskies scored a pair of runs in their half of the seventh, but reliever Amanda Bolton (Scottsdale, Ariz./Horizon [Arizona]) induced a groundball double play to end the game.
Crusader starting pitcher Alex Lagesse (Beecher, Ill./Beecher) pitched five scoreless innings to earn the win, allowing just three hits while improving to 7-5 on the year. Lagesse has now tossed 15 consecutive shutout innings over her last four appearances. Morgan Bittner took the loss for NIU, falling to 5-7 after surrendering 11 runs in her six innings of work. Conner went 3-for-5 with three runs and three RBIs to lead the Valpo offense in game one, while Rutkowski also scored three runs and Brown drove in a team-high four runs.
The Crusaders trailed at the outset of game two, going scoreless in the top of the first while NIU scored in its first at-bat on an RBI single by Stephanie Tofft. But that would be the only frame in which Valpo didn't score in game two, as it claimed the lead for good in the top of the second. Conner delivered a one-out single to right to cap an 11-pitch at-bat, followed by a 0-2 double to the right-center gap by Phalen, a play in which Conner came around to score thanks to an error by the NIU right fielder. Phalen would later score on an RBI double by Wisniewski, giving the Crusaders a 2-1 lead.
Consecutive one-out singles in the third by Boldt and Rutkowski set Conner up with a pair of runners on base, and the senior drove both in with a triple down the right-field line, increasing the Valpo lead to 4-1. Freshman Angie Doerffler (Fort Wayne, Ind./Concordia Lutheran) scored a run in the fourth after a Strickland infield single was compounded by a misplay by the Huskies' defense, and after NIU responded with a run in the bottom of the fourth to cut the deficit to 5-2, Rutkowski scored on a triple by Phalen in the top of the fifth to push the lead back to four runs.
Valpo added another run in the sixth thanks to an error by NIU's shortstop, allowing Doerffler to score to make it 7-2 Valpo, but the Huskies responded with three runs in its half of the frame to make it a 7-5 ballgame into the seventh. Conner added another insurance tally in the seventh with her second homer of the day, this one an opposite-field shot, and while NIU got runners to second and third with two outs in its last at-bat, junior Sam McGee (Bloomington, Minn./Jefferson) induced a groundout to second to close the game.
“I thought especially in game two, we had a really nice approach at the plate with their left-hander pitching,” said Stevens. “We had nice approaches, we were disciplined, and continued to put good swings on pitches. We also did a good job bouncing back from any threats that NIU was able to mount.”
McGee went the distance for Valpo in game two, already reaching double digits in victories as she improved to 10-3 on the year. Northern Illinois (10-14) starter Nicole Gremillion also went all seven innings in the circle, falling to 1-3. Conner had a big game as well in the nightcap, going 3-for-4 with two runs and three RBIs, while five other Crusaders also had multi-hit games.
“Sadie's continued to work to improve her swing throughout the season,” said Stevens. “There wasn't anything early on necessarily really wrong with her swing, but hits just weren't falling for her. She's just continued to work, and it's paying off for her now.”
Valparaiso (20-10) puts its winning streak on the line again Saturday at home as the Crusaders host UIC for a Horizon League doubleheader. First pitch of game one is slated for 1 p.m., and live stats for both games can be found at www.valpoathletics.com.