Valparaiso (22-13, 9-6 Horizon)
April 18 [DH] - Central Michigan (26-12, 11-4 MAC)
April 21 & 22 [DH] - at Detroit Mercy (9-26, 6-4 Horizon)
Next Up in Crusader Softball: The Valparaiso University softball team takes a brief step out of Horizon League action with a mid-week doubleheader on Tuesday at home against Central Michigan before starting the home stretch of league play with their final road series of the year this weekend at Detroit Mercy.
Previously: The Crusaders went .500 over a six-game stretch last week, dropping all three games in Horizon League action against league-leading UIC before going on the road and sweeping Cleveland State.
Looking Ahead: Valpo's final non-league games of the season come next Wednesday, April 26 with a doubleheader at Northern Illinois. The Crusaders will then close the season with two straight weekends of home Horizon League series.
Following the Crusaders: All five games this week will have live stats available via ValpoAthletics.com. Most league home games and select road games throughout the year will be available on ESPN3, WatchESPN and the ESPN app.
Head Coach Kate Stake: Kate Stake was hired as head coach of the Valparaiso softball program on July 23, 2014 and is in her third season as head coach, owning 56 victories. Stake led the Crusaders to the 2016 Horizon League Championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament - the third in program history. Stake arrived at Valpo with eight seasons of assistant coaching experience at the Division I level, most recently serving as an assistant at mid-major power Hofstra.
Series Notes: Central Michigan - Despite being separated by just 3 1/2 hours, the Crusaders and Chippewas have met just five times in program history, with CMU holding a 3-2 advantage in the series. Last year saw the Chippewas sweep a doubleheader, 10-1 and 5-3, in Mt. Pleasant. Valpo's lone NCAA Tournament victory in program history came in 2013 over CMU by a 7-4 final.
Detroit Mercy - Valpo holds the 33-22 edge in the series over the Titans, including a 21-6 mark since joining the Horizon League prior to the 2008 campaign. Last season, Detroit Mercy earned the series win in Valparaiso, winning the first two games of the series by finals of 9-2 and 9-6 before the Crusaders claimed the finale, 9-1.
Scouting the Opposition: Central Michigan - The Chippewas enter Tuesday's twinbill at 26-12 overall and 11-4 in MAC play, most recently taking two of three in a conference series with Toledo. CMU is led by the work of Rachael Knapp in the circle, who owns a 16-7 record and a 1.38 ERA with 207 strikeouts in 168 innings of work. Offensively, four Chippewa regulars hit better than .300, led by a .400 average from Allison Curtis.
Detroit Mercy - The Titans are 9-26 overall this year, but own a 6-4 record in Horizon League play after a victory over Green Bay last weekend (the final two games of the three-game series were canceled due to weather). Detroit Mercy hosts Oakland in a mid-week series before welcoming the Crusaders to town this weekend. Courtney Gilbert leads the Horizon League with a .392 batting average and has tallied a team-best 24 RBIs. In the circle, Liz Murphy has pitched more than half the innings and is 8-14 with a 4.08 ERA.
Crusaders Picked Third in Preseason Poll: Valparaiso was picked to finish in third place in the Horizon League standings in 2017 in the preseason poll, as picked by the league’s head coaches. UIC claimed seven of the nine first-place votes and finished with 62 points, while Wright State received the other first-place nod and 55 total points. The Crusaders tallied 47 points in the polling.
Looking Back at 2016: The 2016 season saw Valpo make a run for the ages, as the Crusaders needed a win on the final day of the regular season just to make the Horizon League Championship. But once there, Valpo more than proved it belonged, rolling through the first three days of the tournament before rallying from a four-run deficit in the seventh inning to defeat Wright State and claim the Horizon League title and the league's automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. Returning award winners in 2017 include Carly Trepanier (Second Team All-League; All-Tournament Team), Sam Stewart (league tournament MVP) and Lanie Callaghan (league tournament batting champion).
Experienced, Yet Youthful: The 2017 Crusader softball team features a distinct mix of veterans and newcomers. Seven starters return from last year's lineup, but the Crusaders also welcome nine first-year players to the program this season - seven of whom are true freshmen.
Looking at the HL Race: The Crusaders currently are in the middle of a four-team pack occupying spots two through five in the Horizon League standings. Wright State sits at 9-3, while Valpo and Oakland are both 9-6 and Detroit Mercy is 6-4. UIC (13-2) currently has some separation at the top of the standings. The Crusaders sit with a 2.5 game lead over Youngstown State (5-7) and a three-game edge over Northern Kentucky (6-9).
One Last Chance: Valpo found itself trailing by three runs through six innings and, later in the frame, down to its final strike before rallying to tie the middle game of last weekend's series at Cleveland State. The Crusaders eventually won in extra innings, marking the third time this year Valpo has won when being down after six innings - a single-season program best dating back to at least 1999. As of March 17, the Crusaders were 10-308 (.031) since the start of the 1999 campaign when trailing through six innings, but have won three of their last eight in that situation:
March 18 vs. South Dakota - down 4-3 entering the 7th inning; recorded a walk, a sacrifice bunt and four straight singles to walk off with the 5-4 win
March 24 at Northern Kentucky - down 3-2 entering the 7th inning; tied game on a one-out single, took lead on a bases-clearing double; scored five runs in the 7th and eventually won 7-4
April 14 at Cleveland State - down 3-0 entering the 7th inning; tied game on a two-out, two-strike base hit; eventually won 4-3 in eight innings
Winning Series: The series sweep of Cleveland State, coming off of the heels of falling to UIC, marked Valpo's first sweep of the season. It was also the Crusaders' fourth series win within Horizon League play this year, tying the third-most in a single season within league action since joining the Horizon League prior to the 2008 season with three series remaining. Only the 2008 (five) and 2012 (six) squads won more series within league play.
Picking Up the Ws: Junior Kenzie Grossmann capped a strong weekend at Cleveland State with her second complete-game shutout of the season, blanking the Vikings in a six-hit effort. The series finale was Grossmann's third straight win of the series, as she earned the victory in starting the opener before entering in relief in the second game and recording the win. She became the first Crusader pitcher since Valpo joined the Horizon League to win all three games of a series, and is the first Valpo pitcher since Amanda Gilbertson in 2004 to pick up three wins in any length series. Grossmann is now 15-7 on the year, leads the Horizon League in wins and is already seventh on Valpo's single-season wins chart - just two victories shy of fourth position.
Big Blasts From Stewart: Senior Sam Stewart delivered the game-winning blow in the middle game of the CSU series, with a solo homer in extra innings, and added another solo bomb in the series finale against the Vikings. She now has gone deep 11 times this season, tied for third-most in program history and just three off the program record of 14, and has driven in 38 runs, tenth on the single-season charts. The game-winning homer in game two of the series was Stewart's 100th career RBI, and she now owns 102 RBIs, fifth-most in program history. Her 25 home runs are tied for third-most in Crusader lore, and she has also drawn 65 walks, good for sixth all-time. Stewart did see her program-record 28-game on-base streak come to an end in the series opener versus UIC.
Moving On Up: Stewart is far from the only Crusader making her mark on the record books, however. Trepanier surpassed the 250 at-bat mark last week, giving her enough at-bats to qualify for the career average charts, where her current career batting average of .358 ranks second in program history. Meanwhile, in the field, Jaymee Lawton has tallied 120 assists from the shortstop spot already this year - ninth-most in a season in program history, and just nine away from fifth place. Jasmine Ramirez has yet to commit an error over at first base, as she is on pace to become the fourth player in program history to post a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage over an entire season (minimum 100 chances).
Weekly Honors: Kenzie Grossmann was named the Horizon League Pitcher of the Week by the league office on March 20, giving Valpo four league weekly awards from the Horizon League office in as many weeks of competition to open the season, after Valpo had had just five total honorees the last three years. Perhaps most impressively, the four awards went to four different Crusaders.
March 20 - Kenzie Grossmann - Pitcher of the Week - 2-1, 5-hitter in win over South Dakota State, 11 strikeouts in 12.1 innings
March 13 - Ashlyn Montgomery - Pitcher of the Week - 1-1, 1 save, 1.11 ERA, .229 opponent batting average, 4-hitter at #9/11 Alabama
March 6 - Carly Trepanier - Player of the Week - 9-for-15 (.600), 4 runs scored
Feb. 20 - Sam Stewart - Player of the Week - 6-for-11 (.545), 1.727 SLG, 4 home runs, 8 runs, 7 RBIs
High Five: The Crusaders' win over Stony Brook on March 3 was their fifth consecutive to open the season, setting a new program record for the best start in team history at 5-0. Valpo had previously started 4-0 in 1986, 2000 and 2002, but all three of those squads dropped their fifth game of the season.