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Schmack makes a pitch for Valpo baseball

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Updated: February 24, 2014 8:50PM



Please don’t confuse first-year Valparaiso University baseball coach Brian Schmack with the new kid on the block.

Hardly. Not when he spent the previous seven years as Tracy Woodson’s pitching coach.

When Woodson departed for Richmond after guiding the Horizon League Tournament champs to their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, Schmack was the logical choice to replace his former boss.

You couldn’t ask for a smoother transition, embellished by Schmack’s professional background. He pitched for three American League organizations, highlighted by 11 appearances for Detroit in 2003.

“Tracy and I are very similar in philosophy,” he said after returning from an opening three-game series in Homewood, Ala. “Let the players play.”

Last May it worked like a charm. After finishing with a ho-hum 13-11 conference record, the late-blooming Crusaders beat Wright State for the tournament title.

In their NCAA debut, they led Big Ten champion Indiana 4-1 before giving up four runs in the ninth. After stunning Florida, they took a 4-2 lead against Austin Peay before being eliminated. All three games were decided by a 5-4 score.

Being so competitive boosted the Crusaders’ collective ego and made potential recruits sit up and take notice. Consider them the little engine that almost could.

“It’s not like football where bigger, faster, stronger beats you every time,” said Schmack. “Just play and don’t worry about the (opponent’s) name on the front of the jersey.

“Having Indiana on the ropes and beating Florida is having an impact on our recruiting. Kids saw us stay with Indiana until the end on TV and we’ve got some pretty good local guys looking at us.”

One of those recruits, Mario Losi, limited Samford to one earned run in seven innings in his pitching debut. He and third baseman Nate Palace, both freshmen, are among seven Californians currently on the roster.

Despite the storybook finish, the Crusaders didn’t get much respect in the Horizon preseason poll. Schmack doesn’t seem too disturbed about being picked to finish fourth, preferring to use it as a motivational tool.

His conference peers must have been swayed by VU’s third-place finish in the regular season and the loss of several key players. Notable casualties included infielder Tanner Vavra and catcher Billy Cribbs.

Vavra, who was signed by the Twins, provided a big chunk of the offense. He led the Horizon League in hits (70) and runs (42) and batted .333 despite freakish childhood accidents which deprived him of sight in his right eye.

Behind the plate, Ray Bartolomucci and Jake Hanson hope to double-team the vacancy, which won’t be easy since Cribbs was a three-year starter.

Valparaiso’s outfield shapes up as the league’s best with Chris Manning and Michael Moorman flanking center fielder Mark Johnson, who was the Horizon tournament MVP in 2012.

Manning batted .303 last year and anchors right field for the fourth straight season. Over that stretch he is pushing 190 starts. Moorman made the Horizon all-tournament team as a freshman, but back and knee injuries limited him to 16 games in the last two years.

Valparaiso’s infield starts with shortstop Spencer Mahoney, who went 7-for-12 in an opening series at Samford. Last year, he made the all-NCAA regional team at Bloomington, and posted a .381 on-base percentage.

First baseman Andrew Bynum led the Crusaders with a .478 slugging percentage. He also batted .313 after transferring from Orange Coast Community College, which was ranked No. 1 nationally in 2012.

Schmack’s pitching staff begins with Cole Webb, a 15-game starter who pitched 97 innings last year.

“He’s my Friday guy, throws in the mid-80s,” said Schmack, who considers Webb’s 5-7 record deceiving. His .3.42 ERA deserved better.

Webb will be backed by Dalton Lundeen, who is currently sidelined by mononucleosis. The lefty went 5-1 in his freshman year and throws in the 85-to-87 mph range.

“He should be a weekend guy when he recovers,” Schmack said.

Valparaiso pitchers rely on location and guile. Only closer Karch Kowalczyk qualifies as a flamethrower. The Horizon League Tournament MVP was clocked in the low 90s at Samford.

“Karch gives us that extra velocity,” said Schmack, who is also using him as a DH. At Samford he buttoned up VU’s two victories, slapped a two-run double and a solo homer. “He’s our rock in the pen. He brings a good changeup to the table.”

Meanwhile, Valparaiso is fighting a losing battle against the elements.

“The only time we’ve gotten outdoors was on our trips,” said their frustrated coach, referring to games at Samford and at Jacksonville State.

Their next trip starts Friday at McNeese State, the first of nine games in 11 days through Louisiana and Texas.

Valparaiso’s home opener is scheduled against Milwaukee on May 14. Good luck with that.

Let the Games disappear

Thank goodness the Winter Olympics only come once every four years. Those gimmicky bogus events which some bored kids in Canada made up leave me cold (no pun intended). Do we really need two weeks of obscure athletes who disappear immediately afterward to whatever mountain they came down from?

Ski slopestyle, snowboard cross seeding, halfpipe, parallel giant slalom, moguls qualifier? Would someone care to translate?

Except for speed skating and dancing on ice, give me the latest episodes of “The Big Bang Theory,” “The Walking Dead” or “Justified.”

Give me a good Big Ten basketball game or the latest reports from spring training in Arizona and I’m a happy camper. Especially when I see snow piled 15 to 20 feet high in my neighborhood just waiting to flood Northwest Indiana.

Most of all, give me warmth.



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