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Mutka: Hope ‘springs’ eternal with firsts for Valparaiso

Elliott MartCody Hudson

Elliott Martin, Cody Hudson

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Updated: July 5, 2013 2:35PM



In case you haven’t been paying attention, this has been a heckuva year — probably the best in memory — for Valparaiso University spring sports.

Allow me to present a refresher course.

Last May was pretty special for the baseball and softball programs, which represented the Horizon League in the NCAA tournament. Though they were quickly eliminated, just qualifying was a step in the right direction.

Flash forward to 2013 for the topper. In the past couple of weeks the Crusaders built momentum, lingering with first-ever victories in Division I postseason play.

Coach Jordan Stevens’ softball team capped its second NCAA appearance with a 7-4 victory over Central Michigan in the Ann Arbor regional.

Before being ousted by California, the Crusaders topped 30 victories for the fifth time in six years. They surpassed expectations behind a freshman battery of 21-game winner Taylor Weissenhofer and league RBI champion Janelle Bouchard.

Afterward, VU waved goodbye to its most winning senior class (146 victories), headed by all-conference third baseman Joylyn Ichiyama, who unexpectedly returned to provide leadership.

Stevens promised more of the same after the Central Michigan game.

“We want to continue to build on where we’ve gone the last couple of years,” he said. “We don’t want to be content with where we’re at.”

Where they’re at is in an enviable position. Weissenhofer, who broke the school record with 234 strikeouts for Horizon MVP honors, and freshman pitcher Sierra Pico (11-10) provide reasons for optimism in the arms race.

So does an intact outfield, headed by Schererville’s Kaitlyn Ranieri (.314) and a veteran infield anchored by shortstop Angie Doerffler, second baseman Amanda Wisniewski and first baseman Jessie Marinec.

Looking at who’s coming back, plus a dash of incoming prospects, the Crusaders won’t need much tinkering to push the envelope. Certainly, a record 40-win season is within reach if the weatherman cooperates.

What Tracy Woodson’s baseball team accomplished without the benefit of a dominant pitcher is remarkable. The Crusaders huffed and puffed to a so-so 11-9 record in the Horizon League, then astonished the experts by going 3-0 in the league tournament. Their victims included UIC, which beat them five of six during the regular season, and regular season champ Milwaukee.

Valparaiso earned a regional berth in Bloomington, where a stunning ninth-inning loss to Indiana awaited. Most teams would have been demoralized after blowing a 4-1 lead to the Big Ten champion in the ninth inning. These Crusaders are made of sterner stuff and rallied from a 4-1 deficit to eliminate Florida.

Woodson spent a sleepless night after the IU loss, but commended the Crusaders for their short memory and remarkable resilience.

No one felt worse for Karch Kowalczyk than Woodson after the Horizon tournament MVP suffered his first bad outing in 23 appearances.

“He was really down,” said Woodson of the previously invincible shutdown artist. “I felt bad for him especially since this was his big chance after not being able to play last season because he was hurt.

“I tossed and turned all night, but they’re young guys. They forgot about it and came back. I just told them when you play Indiana and Florida you’ve got to be ready. They were right from the git-go. I could see the energy.”

Last year the Crusaders ended a 44-year tournament drought behind the solid pitching of departed Tyler Deetjen (8-3) and Kevin Wild (6-4), but were blown out by Purdue and Kentucky in the Gary Regional.

This time the Crusaders turned to Kyle Wormington for relief. He staved off elimination with three scoreless innings, collecting his team-leading sixth victory and their first in postseason play since 1966.

Until recently Wormington endured a disappointing spring which cost him his spot in the weekend rotation. He showed signs of life by going 72/3 innings in a victory over Toledo in the final week of the regular season, but still deferred to Cole Webb, Chris DeBoo and freshman Dalton Lundeen.

Against Florida ‘Worm’ wiggled out of a runners on second-and-third jam with a strikeout and a game-ending grounder. Mixing his pitches prolonged VU’s tournament life until a Sunday loss to Austin Peay.

“You can’t rely on just the fastball against the big boys,” Woodson said, “but he got a couple of big outs with changeups, especially the strikeout in the ninth inning.”

In the last two years the Crusaders had raised eyebrows with victories over top 10 teams such as Arkansas, which reached the College World Series in 2012, and perennial national contender Arizona State. Beating the Gators boosted their national resume.

“Especially doing it on TV gives us more publicity,” Woodson said. “We’re going to use it to our advantage.”

Next year the Crusaders bring in nine recruits, including infielder Elliott Martin’s brother, Joppe, and Mark Pall, who carries a major league pedigree. His dad, Donn, pitched for the White Sox and the Cubs in the 1990s.

Wormington and DeBoo are departing, but incoming pitchers Matthew Gatewood and Mario Losi could fill in the blanks.

Kowalczyk might be drafted, but Woodson expects the fifth-year senior to return to VU. Think of what this spring would have been without his 12 saves.

Sadly it came to an end Sunday with VU’s 13th one-run loss in a 32-28 season. Ironically, all three NCAA tournament games involving the Crusaders were by a 5-4 score.



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