VALPARAISO | When Valparaiso recorded the final out of the Horizon League softball tournament last weekend, Jordan Stevens earned a special distinction that has eluded even the men’s basketball program the last 13 years.
Stevens joined Carin Avery (volleyball), Keith Freeman (women’s basketball) and Tim Maluga (women’s tennis) as Valparaiso coaches who have led their respective programs to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances since the start of the century.
It’s been a strong turnaround for a program that once went 16 straight years without a winning season and Stevens has been behind the final push of the resurgence.
“We went from people not even knowing how to pronounce our name to being able to get our foot in the door at some of the top (high school) programs in the country,” Stevens said. “We’ve developed into a strong program and there were a lot of good people who helped lay the groundwork before I got here.”
Former coach Randy Schneider guided Valparaiso to its first winning season since 1989 when the Crusaders went 27-19 in their final season in the Mid-Continent Conference in 2007. Schneider led the Crusaders to three straight winning seasons in the Horizon League before leaving for Wisconsin prior to Stevens’ arrival.
The Crusaders rode a strong senior class to the NCAA tournament last season and will take a youth-driven team to Ann Arbor this evening for a first-round contest against No. 8 Michigan. The fact Stevens was able to get the current Crusaders to the postseason is a testament to the strength of the program.
“Softball demonstrates what we aspire to be at Valparaiso,” Director of Athletics Mark LaBarbera said. “We want to build quality programs, not just quality teams. Jordan has put together a strong program and he’s doing what we’re seeing with David Gring and men’s golf; with Mike Avery and soccer.
"We don’t just want one-off success every eight years. We’re looking for consistency in the programs.”
After going five years without a conference tournament title on campus, the Crusaders have now sent six teams to the NCAA tournament the past two years with softball leading the way.
“The bigger view that we take is that the athletic department is a very visible way to showcase the overall institution,” LaBarbera said.
“The fact that we can have multiple teams, that we’re not just a one-trick pony (with men’s basketball), is a great example of the entire university.”
Stevens noticed immediately the impact that making the NCAA tournament had on recruiting last season, especially in Northwest Indiana.
Not only did Lake Central product Kat Ranieri join the roster, but plenty of other local talent started paying attention to the Crusaders.
“It’s absolutely been a huge impact,” Stevens said. “The emails I receive have doubled. People are taking notice of our program.”