With one full season of Horizon League play in the books, the Valparaiso University Crusaders head into season two with an experience-laden team looking to make some noise and climb the ranks of the conference. Valpo returns 10 letterwinners from last year’s squad, including four starters, and looks to improve upon a 14-16 overall record and a 9-9 mark in Horizon League play. With a sixth place finish in 2007-2008, and a preseason prediction to finish sixth again this year, the Crusaders will look to surprise the prognosticators by season’s end.
Valpo returns more than 85% of its scoring output from one year ago, and with a balanced roster of four returning seniors, two juniors, four sophomores, and four newcomers, three of whom are eligible this season, the future appears bright for the Crusaders.
Head coach Keith Freeman, Valpo’s all-time winningest coach, is set to begin his 15th season on the Crusader bench. He enters the season with 243 victories at Valpo, and is poised to surpass the 250 mark this season. In his 14 seasons at the helm of the Brown and Gold, his squads have produced 12 winning seasons, two NCAA Tournament appearances, a quarterfinal appearance in the WNIT, two conference regular season championships, and two conference tournament titles.
Freeman’s staff consists of a corps of talented individuals willing to help the Crusaders move towards the top of the Horizon League. Associate head coach Greg Kirby returns for his third season, bringing a wealth of basketball knowledge from his more than 30 years of coaching experience.
Assistant coaches Abby Scharlow and Christy Smith both had standout collegiate careers themselves and went on to play professionally, and both bring a vast array of knowledge to the Valpo sidelines. Scharlow, in her second season with the Crusaders, helped to orchestrate a solid perimeter attack in year one with the Brown and Gold. Smith joins the Valpo staff after playing in the Final Four with the University of Arkansas and being drafted into the WNBA.
Valpo’s senior class will be called upon to lead this year’s team, both on and off of the court. The four seniors have combined to play in 307 games over their first three seasons, with each displaying a different asset to help lead to the team’s success.
Point guard Agnieszka Kulaga earned Second Team All-Horizon League honors in Valpo’s first season in the conference, and is a Preseason Second Team pick again this year. With a team-leading 14.6 points per game last year, she finished fifth in the league in scoring. A three-time Horizon League Player of the Week during her junior campaign, Kulaga posted a triple-double with 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists against eventual league champion Green Bay last year. Kulaga also excels in the classroom, where she earned Academic All-District V Second Team accolades.
Forward Aimee Litka had a breakout season for the Crusaders in 2007-2008, and was a model of consistency in the scoring column. She tallied double figures in 27 of 30 games as a junior, on her way to averaging 13.7 points per game, ninth best in the Horizon League. Litka was third in the league making 2.3 three-pointers per game, and was fourth in the conference shooting 84.3% from the free throw line, just 0.3% behind Kulaga, who was second in the conference.
Launa Hochstetler continues to move up the assist list at Valpo, and has an opportunity to move into the top-five all-time by the end of her senior season. She averaged 3.8 assists per game as a junior, fourth best in the Horizon League, and enters the 2008-2009 campaign with 225 career assists, ranking 14th all-time in Valpo laurels. Hochstetler had 113 helpers last season, and with similar numbers this year could finish among the best ever in a Crusader uniform. She also averaged 9.9 points per contest last season, hitting the game-winning three-pointer in the victory over Green Bay in overtime.
Launa’s twin sister Leah Hochstetler also had a game-winning triple last year, draining the winning basket against South Dakota State in the final minute. Leah was a solid contributor for the Crusaders off of the bench last year, shooting 47.3% from three-point range. A shooting guard, her range beyond the arc extends deeper than most. She proved she could be explosive in a reserve role a year ago, posting a career-high 11 points on two different occasions, and draining three triples on three different nights.
A pair of junior forwards return to the court for their third season in a Crusader uniform, each having started several games for Valpo a year ago. As they move into upperclass roles this season, each will be called upon for more production on the court, as well as being a leader off of the floor.
Whitney Farris started nine games in year two with the Brown and Gold and began to make her presence known in the paint. She averaged 6.1 points and 3.1 rebounds per game as a forward, but also showed the ability to hit the outside jumper. She scored a career-high 16 points midway through the season, and had a pair of double-figure rebounding efforts as well.
Classmate Kelly Peller made 14 starts in the post a year ago, and continued to improve throughout the season. She began to produce offensively as the season went along, scoring in double figures three times in the month of February. She too has the ability to shoot outside, making 35.7% of her three-point attempts on the year.
Valpo also has three junior transfers on the roster this season, two of whom are eligible this season and a third that has to sit out due to NCAA transfer rules. Lauren Kenney is an athletic forward from Lincoln Trail College in Illinois where she averaged 12.6 points and 9.7 rebounds per game while shooting 61.7% from the floor. She was named to the All-Great Rivers Athletic Conference Team as well as to NJCAA All-Region 24 Team. She was the leading rebounder in the program’s history with 557 boards in two seasons, and the school’s sixth leading scorer.
Sylwia Zabielewicz also will see time on the floor this season in the post for the Crusaders. A 6’6" center from Poland, she played for Midland College in Texas. She brings much needed size to Valpo’s inside game. Zabielewicz averaged 6.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game for Midland, while shooting 44.4% from the floor.
Freeman also has Kelly Watts joining the program this season as a transfer from Eastern Michigan, but must sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules. She will have two years of eligibility remaining beginning next season. Watts started 22 games for the Eagles as a sophomore, averaging 7.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per night.
After redshirting her first season at Valpo due to injury, Katie Emig made an impact in the post last year in her first year on the court for the Brown and Gold. She averaged 3.7 points and 2.6 boards per game off of the bench, averaging nearly 12 minutes per contest. Emig had a break-out game against UIC, scoring 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the floor, and looks to make even more of a presence this year.
Ashley Varner also played a role off of the bench for the Crusaders in her rookie season, seeing nearly 10 minutes of action per night. She grabbed 2.5 boards per game as a forward and shot 80% from the free throw line. An athletic defender, she averaged nearly a half a steal per game as well.
Guards Rashida Ray and Stephanie Thomas both got a taste of collegiate action for the Crusaders as a freshman as well. Ray appeared in 16 games and averaged 2.6 points per night, making 10 three-pointers on the year. She offered a glimpse of her potential at Cincinnati, where she poured in 12 points for the Brown and Gold. Thomas saw action in four games for the Crusaders, and will look to make more of an impact in year two at Valpo.
Just one freshman is found on Valpo’s 2008-2009 roster. Betsy Adams scored 1,802 points as a guard at Twin Lakes High School during her prep career, shooting 43.1% from three-point range. She was a Third Team All-State selection as a senior after averaging 22.5 points per game. An explosive scorer as a shooter, she poured in 30 points or more in a game four times last season.
As has been the case for the past few years, Freeman will challenge his team with a solid non-conference schedule, including several games against major conference foes. The season will open on November 19 at the Athletics-Recreation Center when Bowling Green comes to town. The Falcons have won four consecutive Mid-American Conference titles. Purdue and Notre Dame will also visit the ARC during the same week in December as Valpo’s quality home schedule features teams from the Big Ten and Big East as well.
When Valpo hits the road during the non-conference slate, the Crusaders will travel to Fort Collins, Colo. for a tournament hosted by Colorado State from the Mountain West Conference. Florida State, from the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Murray State also are in the event. A trip to North Texas and South Dakota State are also on the schedule for the Crusaders, as is a trip to Lehigh for the Christmas City Classic which also features La Salle and North Florida.
The 18-game Horizon League schedule begins on January 3 at the ARC when Youngstown State comes to Valparaiso. The Crusaders and Penguins also will wrap up the regular season in Youngstown, Ohio on March 7. The Horizon League Tournament then begins March 9 and runs through March 15 on campus sites, with the winner earning the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
With 10 letterwinners returning from last year’s squad, and nearly all of the offensive production back from a year ago, all indications point to a successful season for the Brown and Gold. Freeman looks to guide his Crusaders into the upper echelon of the Horizon League in just Valpo’s second season in the conference.
Looking to rebound from last season, the Crusaders will look to add to their winning tradition, as they attempt to post their 13th winning season in 15 years. With four seniors providing the leadership and a quality schedule in store for Valpo, there should be plenty of excitement at the Athletics-Recreation Center in 2008-2009.