Crusader Softball Enjoys Historic 2012 Season
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Crusader Softball Enjoys Historic 2012 Season
The Crusaders' seven seniors with the Horizon League Championship trophy. (Jon Hendricks)

42 victories.  A Horizon League regular season championship.  The Horizon League tournament championship.  A trip to the NCAA Tournament.  All were accomplishments never before achieved by the Valparaiso softball program until the 2012 season, a campaign which saw the Crusaders reach numerous other milestones along the way.

Heading Out West

For the first time in program history, the Crusaders traveled to the Southwest for their annual spring break trip to kick off the season, playing in the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California for the first time ever.  The theme of the trip turned out to be two-fold: wins and honorees.  The season started off with a 3-1 trip to the UNI Dome Tournament, relocated to Ames, Iowa, with freshman Brittany Duncan and senior Alex Lagesse earning Horizon League Player and Pitcher of the Week honors, respectively, for the first weekend of play.

Two weekends later, Valpo went 4-1 at the Frost Classic in Chattanooga, Tenn. and followed with a 3-1 mark the next weekend at the UTEP Invitational in El Paso, Texas.  Senior Jordan Rutkowski earned back-to-back Player of the Week honors from the league office, the second of which came after she broke Valpo’s career home runs record during the UTEP tournament.  The Crusaders actually won their first three games in El Paso to start the season 10-2, their best 12-game start in program history.

After winning a single mid-week game at New Mexico State, Valpo continued on to the Diamond Devil Invitational in Tempe, Ariz. and hit a bump in the road, losing all five games against a competitive tournament field.  Despite that, redshirt sophomore Jessie Marinec became Valpo’s fourth weekly honoree from the league office after matching her career home run total in a five-game span.

Looking to break their losing skid, the Crusaders traveled to their final destination, the San Diego Classic II in San Diego, Calif.  Valpo would split a pair of games in San Diego before its final three games were rained out, the only games the Crusaders would have canceled due to weather all season long.

Back to the Midwest

With their spring break trip complete, the Crusaders returned home with a 12-9 record, ready for the meat of their regular season schedule.  It was a quick turnaround to start the home campaign just two days after returning from San Diego, as Valpo swept a doubleheader from IUPUI at home under sunny skies and record-high temperatures on March 20, the earliest home games in program history.

Valpo made it five wins in a row that weekend, starting off Horizon League play with a three-game sweep at Detroit, a series in which all three games were decided by at least five runs.  The Crusaders’ sweep of the Titans would prove to be a harbinger of things to come within league action.  Valpo’s next contest would see it drop a one-run decision to Purdue, but little did anybody know that would be its last loss for a 12-game span.

The Winning Streak

Over the next 17 days, the Crusaders would win 11 consecutive games in all variety of fashions.  There were run-rule wins (3) and close victories (4 games decided by two runs or less).  There were shutouts (6) and offensive explosions (3 games scoring at least 10 runs).  And there were record-setting performances: a 17-0 win over Green Bay which set new marks for winning margin and runs in a single inning (12); a 13-12 victory over Youngstown State in which Valpo trailed 12-0 after two innings before rallying for the win, setting a new program record for the team’s largest comeback, as well as the largest comeback within Division I softball in 2012.

Along the way, Rutkowski earned her third Player of the Week honor from the league office of the season, matching the most weekly awards to a single position player in Horizon League history.  She also set new single-season Crusader records for both home runs and RBIs at just the halfway point of the season, and earned perhaps her biggest honor when the senior was tabbed one of 25 finalists for the 2012 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award.

Senior Sam McGee brought home a Horizon League Pitcher of the Week award during the winning streak as well.  McGee tossed four consecutive shutouts over a 25-inning span and had a stretch of 33 straight innings without allowing an earned run.  The fourth of McGee’s shutouts also set a new Crusader record for victories by a pitcher in a career as well.

But perhaps the most important part of the winning streak, the second-longest in Valpo softball history, was the fact that nine of the 11 wins came in Horizon League play.  The Crusaders swept home series from Green Bay and Youngstown State and a road series at Wright State to improve to 12-0 in league action, 4 ½ games clear of second place.

Staying at the Top

Valparaiso’s winning streak would come to an end in non-league action at Notre Dame on April 18, but the more important games would come over a nine-day stretch, as the Crusaders faced three critical league series: at UIC and then at home against Butler and Loyola.

Valpo would win the opener at UIC to improve to 13-0 in league action, the second-best start ever in league play by a Horizon League squad, as the 1997 UIC team went 14-0 in the Horizon League.  But the Crusaders dropped the final two games of the three-game set against the Flames, and then came home and split six games versus Butler and Loyola.

The final game of the Loyola series, a 2-0 win for the Crusaders on April 29, served as Senior Day for Valpo, as the program honored its seven-player senior class prior to the contest.  The senior class, which would close their careers as the winningest class in Crusader softball history, fittingly factored heavily into the outcome, as Lagesse struck out a career-high 11 batters in the shutout and Sara Strickland drove in both runs with a fifth-inning double.  The win also improved Valpo’s league record to 16-5 and assured the Crusaders at least a share of the Horizon League regular season title.

Capturing the Crown

Not content to just share the regular season championship, however, the Crusaders traveled east to Cleveland State for the final weekend of regular season play after sweeping a mid-week doubleheader at home against Western Michigan, the second win marking the 100th victory in the head coaching career of Jordan Stevens.

With Valpo’s three-game set against the Vikings starting a day earlier than the rest of the league’s series, the Crusaders had the chance to claim the outright title by virtue of their own work on the field and took full advantage.  Lagesse tossed a five-hit shutout, while the Crusader offense pounded out 12 hits in a 7-0 victory to give Valpo its first league title in program history.

The Crusaders closed the regular season on a winning note as well, putting together a doubleheader sweep of the Vikings by scores of 6-4 and 13-1, the first win marking the 36th of the 2012 season to set a new program single-season mark for victories.  Valpo ended the regular season with a 37-16 overall record and a 19-5 mark in Horizon League play, winning the league title by 3 ½ games.  Duncan earned her second Player of the Week honor as well from the league office for her performance in the final week of play, bookending her regular season with league awards.

Raking in the Hardware

The Horizon League announced its postseason awards prior to the start of the 2012 Horizon League Championship, and the Crusaders were well represented, as five different players earned All-League accolades.  Valpo’s honorees were highlighted by Duncan, who was named the Horizon League Newcomer of the Year.

Four players received First Team All-League honors, the most honorees on the First Team by a single league squad since Valpo joined the league in 2008.  Duncan, Rutkowski, Lagesse and senior Joylyn Ichiyama-Drewry all were named to the First Team, while Marinec was also honored as a member of the All-League Second Team.

Meanwhile, the Crusaders also placed a program-record three players on the NFCA All-Midwest Region teams as well.  Marinec represented Valparaiso at second base as a First Team All-Region honoree, while Rutkowski was the catcher on the Second Team and Duncan the designated player on the Second Team.

Tournament Time

All the honors meant nothing as the Crusaders prepared to host the 2012 Horizon League Championship on campus at the Valparaiso University Softball Field, one of the perks of winning the regular season title.  The league’s top six teams descended upon Valparaiso for the tournament, all with a shot at winning the tournament crown and earning the league’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament as long as they could avoid losing twice in the double-elimination tournament.

By virtue of earning the #1 seed, Valpo received a first-round bye and got to sit and watch as a pair of games were played on the first day of action.  But when the Crusaders took the field for the first time on Thursday morning, May 10, things did not go to plan, as Butler defeated Valpo by a 6-1 score, immediately sending the Crusaders into the loser’s bracket and just one more loss away from season’s end.

Valpo would bounce back later that evening in the first of what would become five consecutive elimination games, as Lagesse tossed a two-hit shutout to match the individual program record for wins in a single season and down UIC, 3-0.  Friday morning then saw McGee match Lagesse’s two-hit effort as the Crusaders cruised over Youngstown State, 10-0.

It was at that point that the drama would start to heat up for Valpo, as it faced Butler on Friday afternoon for the right to advance to championship Saturday.  Butler scored single runs in the fifth and sixth innings to erase a pair of one-run leads for the Crusaders, sending the game into extra innings.  The Bulldogs threatened in the top of the eighth with two runners on and one out, but consecutive outs got Valpo out of that jam.  Then, in the bottom of the eighth, a leadoff double from Duncan was followed by an intentional walk before back-to-back Butler errors gave the Crusaders a 3-2 walk-off victory and a date with Loyola on Saturday.

Friday’s dramatics were just a prelude for Saturday, however, as Valpo entered the day knowing it would have to beat Loyola twice to earn the tournament title.  The Crusaders trailed 1-0 in the first game of the day entering the bottom of the sixth before sophomore Angie Doerffler led off the inning with her first career home run to tie the game.  Playing their second consecutive extra-inning game, the Crusaders would remain knotted with the Ramblers until the bottom of the ninth, when with two on and one out, Doerffler came up and drove a pitch to the left-center wall to easily score freshman Lindsey Norway from second for the walk-off win.  The 2-1 win forced the winner-take-all game with the title on the line.

A scoreless duel into the bottom of the sixth, it was Doerffler’s leadoff walk which turned into the game’s first run, as pinch-runner Hayley Bridwell scored on an RBI double by Rutkowski.  Two outs away from the title in the top of the seventh, Loyola would push across the game-tying run, but that only set the stage for more heroics from Doerffler.  Sophomore Amanda Wisniewski worked a one-out walk in the bottom of the seventh.  Two batters later, Doerffler stepped in and hit the first pitch she saw to the wall in right for her second walk-off hit of the day, plating Wisniewski with the championship-winning run as Valpo won 2-1 to claim the 2012 Horizon League tournament title and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.  The Crusaders became the first team in 25 years to lose their first game in the Horizon League Championship and rally to win the title.

For her Saturday heroics, Doerffler was named Tournament MVP, while Rutkowski was honored as the Batter of the Championship and Ichiyama-Drewry was tabbed the Defensive Player of the Championship.  Doerffler, Lagesse, Rutkowski, Strickland and Wisniewski all earned spots on the All-Tournament Team as well.

Preparing For the Big Dance

With their card punched for the NCAA Tournament, the Crusaders gathered at a local restaurant on Sunday evening, May 13 to find out where they would be sent and who they would take on in their first-ever appearance in the Big Dance.  Midway through the selection show on ESPNU, Valpo learned it would be going to Louisville, Ky. to face the 15th seed nationally in the Louisville Cardinals, with Michigan and Kentucky also at the Louisville regional.  The Crusaders also learned they would be playing in the national spotlight, as the Louisville regional was selected as the regional with every game broadcast on ESPN or ESPN2.

With the matchups set, the Crusaders departed from the ARC on Wednesday afternoon for the drive to Louisville, receiving a send-off from members of the athletics and university communities.  It was business as usual on the field for Valpo Thursday during its allotted 90-minute practice session at Ulmer Stadium, but with an extra obligation off the field, as after practice, a number of players and Coach Stevens met with members of the ESPN production crew, including announcers Beth Mowins and Jessica Mendoza, for about 40 minutes to help prepare them for the national broadcasts.

Coming Out Aggressive

While the talk entering the Louisville regional of the NCAA Tournament focused mainly on the other three teams, the Crusaders came out wanting to show the nation they belonged, that they were there to be competitive and win games.  They did that by sticking to their season-long game plan of being aggressive at the plate, starting right away in their first game against Louisville.  Strickland and Doerffler each swung at the first pitch they saw, the latter picking up a base hit and eventually scoring to give Valpo a 1-0 lead after the top of the first.

While the Cardinals scored three times in the bottom of the first to claim the lead, Valpo continued to threaten in its times at-bat, putting a runner on base in the third and two on in the fourth.  Finally, in the fifth, the Crusaders would break through, scoring one run on an RBI walk to Duncan and a pair on a single from Rutkowski to claim a 4-3 lead against a Louisville squad ranked among the top-10 in the nation by both national polls.

Lagesse set down the Cardinals in order in the fifth, and then a one-out single was negated by a caught stealing in the sixth as Valpo entered the bottom of the seventh still with a one-run lead.  The Cardinals picked up back-to-back singles to start the frame, but a fielder’s choice erased the lead runner and then a foul pop-out moved the Crusaders one out away from the upset victory.  The game ended in heartbreaking fashion for Valpo, however, as the next batter connected for a walk-off three-run homer to give Louisville a 6-5 win and send the Crusaders into an elimination game on Saturday afternoon.

Never Say Die

After suffering the gut-wrenching defeat against one of the nation’s top teams in their first-ever NCAA Tournament game, it would have been easy for the Crusaders to fold up shop before coming out against Kentucky in the Saturday afternoon elimination game.  And it would have been even easier after surrendering five runs to the Wildcats in the top of the second inning, three of which were unearned.

But for a squad which had fought to the top of the Horizon League standings after being projected as a mid-pack team - a team which had rallied to win a game where it had been down by 12 runs through two innings - a group which had lost the opening game of the Horizon League Championship, only to win five straight elimination games to claim the title – for the 2012 Valparaiso Crusaders, this was just one more obstacle it would look to conquer.

And conquer it, the Crusaders almost did.  After seeing its first 12 batters retired in order, Valpo stayed true to its aggressive nature and finally struck in the bottom of the fifth.  The Crusaders’ first two hitters reached before an RBI double by Ichiyama-Drewry got them on the board, and senior Kelsey Phalen followed with an RBI single of her own.  An error would allow Phalen to score to cut the lead to 5-3, and Strickland came up with an RBI single to bring Valpo within one run at 5-4.

But Kentucky went to the bullpen for the final out of the fifth, and the Crusaders would go down in order in the sixth.  Down to their final strike of the seventh, Norway picked up a two-out single to keep hope alive for even more walk-off heroics, but a strikeout would end Valpo’s historic campaign as the Crusaders fell 5-4 to the Wildcats, closing the 2012 season with a 42-19 record.

Rewriting the Record Books

The Crusaders’ success in 2012 led to an onslaught of new entries in the program’s single-season record books.  14 different individual single-season records fell during the 2012 campaign, led by nine new marks from Rutkowski.  The senior set records for batting average (.430), on-base percentage (.515), slugging percentage (.791), hits (74), RBIs (62), doubles (20), home runs (14) and games played (61).  Duncan and Ichiyama-Drewry each surpassed the previous single-season mark for RBIs, while the former also passed the previous record for total bases.  Doerffler and Strickland matched Rutkowski as well by playing every one of the Crusaders’ 61 games.

Doerffler also broke the single-season at-bats record, registering 191 at-bats, while Strickland and Marinec also surpassed the previous record in that category.  Lagesse set new marks for wins (22) and innings pitched (230.2) in a season.  A pair of defensive records also fell as well, as Phalen set a new record for putouts (489) and Ichiyama-Drewry for assists (188).

As a team, it would almost be easier to list the records the 2012 team did not break, as 14 new team single-season records were set.  On offense, new records were established for on-base percentage (.376), slugging percentage (.472), hits (501), at-bats (1667), runs scored (347), RBIs (309), doubles (96), home runs (57), total bases (786) and walks (191).  Defensively, the Crusaders set new marks for fielding percentage (.975) and putouts (1241), while the program also set new records for games played (61) as well as victories (42).

Senior Class Legacy

The seven-player Valparaiso softball senior class of 2012 have all made their marks individually in the Crusader annals.  Ichiyama-Drewry ranks among Valpo’s all-time top-10 in six different categories, including fifth in RBIs and sixth in home runs.  Shaleigh Jansen is second in Crusader history in saves.  Lagesse and McGee share Valpo’s all-time wins record at 55, while Lagesse also ranks among Valpo’s top-five in six other categories and broke the program’s career strikeouts record at the NCAA Tournament.  McGee ranks among the top-10 in five other categories, including ranking fifth in strikeouts.

Phalen owns spots on 12 different career charts, breaking Valpo’s career putouts record early in her senior year while also ranking second in RBIs and fourth in home runs and runs scored.  Rutkowski ranks among the Crusaders’ top-three all-time in 13 different categories, leading the way in on-base percentage, total bases, RBIs and home runs.  Strickland sits among the top-three in 12 distinct categories and holds the top spot in seven of those categories: batting average, games played, hits, at-bats, runs scored, doubles and walks.

But it’s what the group of seven players has meant to the Crusader softball program beyond the individual numbers which has meant the most.  They have helped guide Valpo to the record number of victories and the first-time accomplishments in 2012, while simultaneously instilling among the younger players what it means to be a Valpo softball player, both on and off the field.  They have forever raised the bar for what it means to play softball for Valparaiso University.