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The Valparaiso baseball team will return to the field this weekend for a season-opening series at Alabama.

While Missouri Valley Conference play doesn’t begin until the end of March, the Crusaders will be moving toward making a strong first impression in the league throughout non-conference play.

Not much is being expected of Valparaiso in the Valley this season as the Crusaders are picked to finish last in a league that has sent multiple teams to the NCAA tournament in four of the last six seasons. Three teams earned a berth in the NCAA tournament in 2005. For comparison, the Horizon League has never received multiple bids to the postseason dating back to the league’s inception in 1981.

While the challenge of facing perennial contenders such as Dallas Baptist and Missouri State will be steep, the Crusaders aren’t backing down in their first year in the conference.

“I enjoy and embrace the underdog role,” Valparaiso coach Brian Schmack said in a statement. “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.”

The Crusaders are led by 2017 Freshman All-American Jon Tieman. The right-handed pitcher starred as a closer last season before moving to the starting rotation late in the year. Tieman is expected to get the ball on Friday night’s this season and should be able to build on his team-leading four wins and 51 strikeouts from a year ago.

Andrean product Chase Dawson will return for his third year as a starter and will man second base after proving to be nearly flawless last season with just two errors in 205 chances. Schererville native Scott Kapers will start at catcher for the third year.

“Our team is going to be built on throwing strikes and playing defense,” Schmack said. “It’s going to take a team effort.”

Pride to host community events: Purdue Northwest will host a pair of events this week designed to entertain the crowd and bring supporters out to a quartet of basketball games. Leo’s Late Season Madness will start on Thursday during a pair of games against Tiffin at the Kesling Gymnasium in Westville.

The first 150 fans receive T-shirts and the school is providing free food courtesy of multiple venues. The school will also host several halftime contests with prize giveaways for fans.

The giveaways continue on Saturday when Purdue Northwest hosts Kids Day at the Fitness and Recreation Center on PNW’s Hammond Campus. The Pride will take on Ashland for a pair of games with the women’s team beginning at 1 p.m. and the men to follow.

The school will grant free admission to children under the age of 17 and will host a variety of activities, including a postgame autograph session featuring each team.