CHICAGO | Forty-four years is a long time to wait for the NCAA tournament. Valparaiso didn’t mind waiting an extra day to earn a return trip.
The Crusaders bounced back from Saturday’s loss to UIC with a resounding 14-5 victory over the Flames on Sunday in the Horizon League title game. Valparaiso is returning to the NCAA Division I tournament for the first time since 1968 and a likely landing spot is the Purdue Regional at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary.
“This feels like it’s been forever, and it’s certainly a long time coming for Valparaiso,” coach Tracy Woodson said. “All the hours that we’ve spent building towards this; it seems like this is the right time.”
Horizon League tournament MVP Mark Johnson had three hits, including a two-run single in the fifth inning that gave the Crusaders the lead for good. Valparaiso scored eight runs in the seventh to break open a one-run game and start the victory party a little early in the dugout.
“We had a lot of faith in each other and we never gave up on each other,” Johnson said. “We just have a lot of joy and happiness right now.”
With both teams making everyone available out of the bullpen on Sunday, it was Valparaiso’s Tyler Deetjen who pitched the final four innings to pick up his eighth win of the season. Deetjen pitched eight innings Thursday night and entered the game as a relief pitcher for the first time in more than two years Sunday.
“I was ready for whatever the coaches needed me to do,” Deetjen said. “I get to extend my career another week. It’s just been a grind and we’re going to keep going.”
The Crusaders (35-23) got to work in the first, scoring three runs off UIC starter Joey Begel as Johnson delivered a two-run double that continued his storybook weekend. Johnson got his chance to contribute only after senior Will Hagel suffered a separated shoulder in the tournament-opener against Youngstown State on Thursday night.
“You just never know when you’re going to get your chance,” Johnson said. “I went from keeping charts to going in the game with no notice, no prep. I knew I had to do my part.”
The Flames (23-34) battled back, scoring two runs in the third. They took a 5-3 lead in the fifth, chasing both Valparaiso starter Will Robinson and relief pitcher Ben Mahar before Deetjen settled in.
“I got a little worried there when the momentum swung over to UIC,” Woodson said. “You never know how kids this age are going to handle those types of shifts.”
Johnson came up big again in the fifth with a two-run single to give the Crusaders a 6-5 lead. Elliott Martin led off the seventh with a solo home run. By the time the junior batted again in the inning, the Crusaders had scored six more runs. Martin added another single and scored the final run of the game when Spencer Mahoney tripled to right-center.
“We spent the entire game just trying to get to the next guy in the lineup,” Mahoney said. “We stayed positive after the loss last night and we knew that if we played our game, kept moving through the lineup, we’d be alright.”
Johnson fittingly caught the final out of the game and the Crusaders dog piled on each other in the infield. The team, which has dealt with multiple tragedies this season, spent nearly 10 minutes hugging each other while few players had dry eyes. Now it could be on to Gary as U.S. Steel Yard was announced as a regional site Sunday afternoon. The NCAA Selection Show will be held this morning.
“This is a bigger deal than what I even thought it would be at the start of the year,” Valparaiso junior Tanner Vavra said. “If we go to Gary, it’s probably one of our best chances to get some wins. We’ll take anything at this point, we’re just happy to be in it.”