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Homecoming a special time for everyone
Highly-anticipated games highlight a big weekend for Valparaiso
There’s something special happening at Valparaiso University.
Maybe it’s that we’ve emerged from COVID and people are anxious to experience the thrill of the crowd again.
Maybe it’s Beacon and Blaze.
Whatever the reason, as Homecoming Weekend is upon us, there is a buzz surrounding Valparaiso athletics that hasn’t been felt in quite some time.
Race to be first
There’s no doubt that Valparaiso’s coaches aren’t always playing with a full deck when compared to their counterparts in the Missouri Valley Conference. Valpo doesn’t have the worst facilities in the league, but it doesn’t have the best either. The Beacons certainly don’t have the budgets or donor network of some of the bigger schools. Whatever odds are stacked against “this small but mighty school that punches above its weight,” the referee still rolls the ball out and the games must be played. No one cares about budgets and collectives when the whistle blows.
Within the Valparaiso athletics community there is a battle to be the first program to win a Missouri Valley Conference title. All the coaches want it and John Marovich may have the best shot. The Valparaiso women’s soccer team is picked to win the Valley this season and the Beacons took a big first step last weekend when Molly O’Rear scored the first collegiate goal of her career in a 1-0 win at Northern Iowa. Valpo can take two more steps forward this weekend when its hosts UIC on Thursday night and Drake on Sunday afternoon.
Both matches will present a challenge. The Flames are coming off a 2-0 win in their Valley opener against Illinois State last weekend and UIC knocked off Valparaiso 3-0 in the last meeting between the two programs on Sept. 23, 2019. Valpo’s current seniors were freshmen that year and 2019 represents a bleak moment in program history. Valparaiso went 2-15-1 and the painful lessons learned with each loss have been the building blocks toward a quest for the Valley title.
Last season’s 1-0 win at Drake was one of those building blocks. After failing to earn a victory in the first eight matches against the Bulldogs, including six losses, Valpo finally broke through with a victory on Oct. 13, 2021.
If the Beacons can earn two results during Homecoming Weekend, it would go a long way toward helping Marovich and his program earn the first Valley title.
Now the real work begins
The last four weekends have been nothing short of spectacular for the Valparaiso volleyball team. Going to battle with a revamped roster with new players in new positions, the Beacons brought home tournament titles from the Youngstown Invitational, Popcorn Classic, Akron/CSU Invitational and the Roadrunner Classic. Valparaiso is off to a 12-0 start, the best in program history, and is one of just six undefeated Division I programs in the country.
Now the real work begins. Valpo hosts Northern Iowa and Drake on Friday and Saturday respectively before traveling to UIC on Monday. If the Beacons wake up Tuesday morning still undefeated, there’s a chance the program could begin to garner national attention. Keeping local attention would mean just as much to the program. The Beacons ended last season on a dream run, winning four home matches in the 2021 NIVC before falling to UNLV in the championship match. There were 2,220 fans at the Athletics-Recreation Center for the title match. That momentum carried over to the opening night of the Popcorn Classic as 853 fans were in attendance. While that might not sound like much compared to the NIVC crowd, consider that the 2019 opener had just 389 fans. The 2016 opener had just 177 fans. There’s an energy and excitement building with Valparaiso volleyball.
Holding their own
The first thing I did was apologize to Landon Fox.
In the days leading up to Valparaiso’s game at Illinois State, I asked the fourth-year coach just what he expected to gain playing an opponent his team couldn’t beat.
Ok, so I didn’t word it quite that blatant, but the message was clear. Why play a team that is favored by five touchdowns. Fox’s answer was brilliant. He said that despite giving up a step of speed and 10-to-15 pounds of muscle, the Redbirds represented the kind of opponent Valparaiso would draw in the FCS playoffs should the Beacons win the Pioneer Football League. He wanted his players to experience that kind of opposition. I just wanted to make sure no one got killed on the field.
The Beacons went down to BloNo and made Reggie Redbird sweat through his costume. Sure, Illinois State held on for a 28-21 victory, but Fox’s team grew up. The following week might have looked like a step back on the scoreboard in a 35-13 loss at Dartmouth, but a deeper analysis shows something different. The Beacons were, once again, five-touchdown underdogs and they were in the game late. There were two occasions when Valpo had the ball on first down at the Dartmouth 5-yard line and it failed to score. Same thing happened to Justin Fields and the Bears against Green Bay on Sunday night. Get enough bites at the apple and the tide will turn. The tide is turning for Valparaiso football.
With the nonconference slate out of the way, Valparaiso will open Pioneer Football League action against San Diego on Saturday afternoon. The Toreros have long been the class of the PFL, holding a 21-6 series advantage against Valpo. That said, the last meeting at Brown Field ended in Valparaiso’s favor as Braden Contreras caught a 9-yard touchdown from Ben Nimz with 25 seconds remaining to give Valpo a 20-19 victory on Apr. 17, 2021. The beacons jumped out to a 14-0 lead last year at Torero Stadium, only to give up 21 unanswered, including a Mason Randall touchdown run with just over a minute remaining in the game.
This weekend has the potential to be special for Valparaiso’s athletic programs. In addition to women’s soccer, volleyball and football, the swim programs are holding an alumni meet on Saturday morning, the softball team will unofficially begin the Meaggan Pettipiece Era with an exhibition doubleheader against Grand Valley State on Sunday afternoon. The golf and cross-country programs have upcoming competitions as does the women’s tennis team. Both basketball programs will officially begin practice for the 2022-23 season next week.
This weekend already will be special for the Valparaiso community. Alums from all over the country are flocking back to campus for a chance to reconnect. Much has changed since COVID took over the world in 2020. Jose Padilla is now Valparaiso’s President and Charles Small is the Director of Athletics. Numerous other changes have emerged all over campus, not the least of which is a bar in the Union!
If you’re a student, a staff member, a faculty member, an alum or a member of the Valparaiso community, come back to campus and ring the Victory Bell. Homecoming Weekend is a special time for everyone.
(Photos provided by Valpo Athletics)
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