As the Valparaiso University baseball team enters the 2018 season, the Crusaders are ready to embrace the role of underdogs in their first season in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The program features a proud baseball tradition and has made two NCAA Regional appearances in the last six seasons while winning the Horizon League Tournament or finishing as the tournament runner-up in four of the last seven years. Valpo has made more NCAA appearances in baseball than any other sport. That tradition will gain a new chapter this season as the Crusaders embark upon their first year in The Valley, an elite mid-major baseball conference.
As the new kids on the block, Valpo players and coaches know that they will have to earn the respect of their MVC peers in a conference that has sent multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament in four of the last six seasons, including three tournament bids in 2015 and two a year ago.
Valpo isn’t hiding from the fact that it was picked eighth of eight in the MVC Preseason Poll or that none of its players received preseason all-conference recognition. Instead, the team is using that to create an added edge going into the 2018 campaign.
“I enjoy and embrace the underdog role, and maybe that’s because that’s how my career played out,” said head coach Brian Schmack, who reached the game’s highest level when he pitched for the Detroit Tigers in 2003. “There’s no question the underdog mindset is real and it motivates people, just look at the Philadelphia Eagles and the way they won the Super Bowl. At some point we’d like to be the favorites, but for our first year in the league, we’ll take it.”
There are three players in the Missouri Valley Conference who received the prestigious honor of being named Freshman All-Americans by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper a year ago. Valpo’s got one of them in right-handed pitcher Jon Tieman (Crystal Lake, Ill. / Prairie Ridge).
Tieman thrived as Valpo’s closer to begin last season, racking up seven saves to put him in a tie for eighth in program history in career saves after less than one full season. When he moved to the weekend rotation for four late-season starts, once again Tieman delivered. He finished the year atop the team in saves and strikeouts (51) while sharing the team lead in wins at 4-1. Though he’s only a sophomore, Schmack has no reservations about handing him the ball on Fridays this season.
“Tieman had a great year and continued to show us that he deserves the Friday job in the fall and winter,” Schmack said. “He doesn’t get rattled easily. He has the perfect makeup for a Friday starter.”
Tieman will be followed in the weekend rotation by a pair of seniors. Trey Ferketic (Laguna Niguel, Calif. / JSerra [UC San Diego]) has transferred in as a fifth-year senior for his final season of eligibility and will assume the role of Saturday starter. Wes Gordon (Gurnee, Ill. / Warren [Lake County]) has been tabbed the Sunday starter after an injury limited him to nine starts in his first year at Valpo in 2017.
Sophomore southpaw Jarrett Hammel (Brook, Ind. / South Newton [St. Joseph’s College] and senior righty Hayden Kissee (Cumberland, Ind. / Greenfield Central [Kaskaskia College]) are among the top candidates for midweek starts.
“Our team is going to be built on throwing strikes and playing defense,” Schmack said. “It’s going to take a team effort. We’ve stressed from Day 1, we can’t afford to walk guys and make errors. We have to make throwing strikes and playing defense hallmarks of our team.”
After joining two other Crusaders on the Horizon League all-freshman team last season, Easton Rhodehouse (Gilbert, Ariz. / Highland) is expected to be a key piece in Valpo’s bullpen this season. He made 25 relief appearances a year ago and shared the team lead with four wins while posting a 2.43 ERA over 33 1/3 innings of work. Rhodehouse yielded just 10 walks while striking out 40 and earning three saves.
Michael Mommersteeg (St. Thomas, Ont., Canada / St. Joseph’s) is back for his sophomore season as a swingman who could see starts in addition to duties as a left-handed reliever. Seniors Luke VanLanen (Pulaski, Wis. / Pulaski), Alex Dirienzo (Somerset, Pa. / Somerset [Akron]) and Chet Joslyn (Battle Creek, Mich. / Lakeview) give the bullpen a veteran flavor, while Josh Currier (Mokena, Ill. / Lincoln Way Central) will log innings as a freshman. Sophomore Jake Larson (Irvine, Calif. / Woodbridge) finished the 2017 season with 10 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.
“We won’t have to rely on one or two guys in the bullpen, we can spread it out among 11-13 pitchers,” Schmack said. “That allows us to do a lot more in terms of playing to matchups. We’re excited about the bullpen depth and all of the options we have available.”
Defensively, it all starts behind the plate for the Crusaders. Scott Kapers (Schererville, Ind. / Mt. Carmel) is back for his third year as the starting catcher after throwing out 41.5 percent of would-be base stealers last season. He batted a team-high .378 over the final 14 games of the season.
“It’s very refreshing and comforting to have an experienced junior behind the plate,” Schmack said. “He talks about how much he didn’t know when he first got here and how much faster the game was. Now, we’re going to let him call a lot of pitches this year because he’s got such a good handle on the staff. His progress and ability to learn has been excellent.”
Senior Zack Leone (Pelham Manor, N.Y. / Fordham Prep [Susquehanna]) and sophomore Christian Barczi (Naperville, Ill. / Naperville North) will back up Kapers. Barczi will also see time at DH after hitting a team-best .343 in league-only games last season and earning Horizon League all-freshman team honors.
Leone is expected to start at first base in his first year at Valpo after setting a Susquehanna program record for career doubles and ranking second in program history in batting average, RBIs and home runs.
The rest of the infield is filled with familiar faces to Valpo fans. Junior Chase Dawson (Chesterton, Ind. / Andrean) will start at second base after making just two errors all season in 205 chances a year ago. He hit his offensive stride late in the season, clubbing .364 over the final month to lead the team in batting average and on-base percentage (.517) during that stretch.
Senior Chad Jacob (Irvine, Calif. / Woodbridge) is back healthy after hitting .291 in 34 games before missing the end of the season with an injury. He enjoyed a team-high five three-hit games in 2017. Sam Shaikin (West Hills, Calif. / Chatsworth) will play the hot corner after hitting a team-best .317 last year. He was the only player to start all 53 games in 2017.
Redshirt junior Brent Jones (Ankeny, Iowa / Ankeny Centennial [Iowa Central]) is in the mix as a utility infielder. The junior college transfer missed last season with an injury. He can play any infield position other than shortstop.
“Having such a veteran group on the infield with two juniors and two seniors makes practices a lot more efficient,” Schmack said. “You’re not explaining a lot of new things; guys know what needs to be done. It’s nice when the players know what I’m thinking without me saying it.”
Senior Giovanni Garbella (San Diego, Calif. / Cathedral Catholic) ranked second on the team in batting average at .302. He was red hot offensively over the second half of the season, hitting .380 with five home runs and 24 RBIs over the final 25 games after entering that stretch with a .206 career average over three years. Garbella will start in right field for Valpo this season.
Newcomer Blake Billinger (Los Gatos, Calif. / St. Francis [Mission]) joins the team as a redshirt junior after earning unanimous first-team all-conference honors in each of his two junior college seasons. He will get the nod in left field.
Perhaps the closest preseason competition came in center field, where senior Jayden Eggimann (Mesa, Ariz. / Desert Ridge [Central Arizona / Grand Canyon]) has won the starting job in his second year at Valpo.
“Jayden is very athletic and showed very well in the fall defensively,” Schmack said. “Offensively, he always has the possibility of launching the ball and won us a few games with big hits last season. We want to be defensive up the middle, and Jayden has gone out and won that starting job in centerfield.”
The Crusaders will begin a challenging nonconference slate on Friday at 3 p.m. CT at SEC foe Alabama. The nonconference season also includes visits to Oklahoma, Grand Canyon, UC Riverside, Loyola Marymount and Arkansas Pine Bluff. Valpo also plays a trio of Big Ten foes this year, including a three-game weekend series at Michigan State.