Feb. 6, 2014
FAU "Kickoff Classic" Tournament Central
DEKALB, Ill. -The Northern Illinois University softball team opens its 2014 season in Boca Raton, Fla. at the FAU "Kickoff Classic" hosted by Florida Atlantic with a doubleheader Friday.
The Huskies will take on No. 18 Louisville at 3 p.m. in the season opener before facing the host FAU Owls at 5 p.m. NIU returns to the diamond for another doubleheader Saturday when the Huskies square off against the Big Ten's Ohio State at 8 a.m. and St. John's of the Big East at 10 a.m. NIU closes out play in the tournament Sunday with No. 30 Tulsa at 12 p.m. All times listed are Central. Fans can follow all the action live, via Gametracker at NIUHuskies.com.
When NIU head coach Christina Sutcliffetook over the program last year, she said her main goal was to not only get the team to want to win, but expect to win. Goal achieved. Last year, the Huskies made an incredible run down the stretch and made some noise in the 2013 Mid-American Conference Softball Tournament, coming a game away from winning the tournament for the first time in school history. Picked to finish third in the MAC West, the Huskies also received a vote to win this year's MAC Tournament.
Sutcliffe was impressed with the Huskies' ability to change the culture within the program and battle to the end last year.
"The desire to change the culture and fight to the end was the big theme for them," she said. "I think we had some great senior leadership last year and the amount of comeback wins in the sixth and seventh innings really defined us down the stretch."
One of the strengths of last year's team was its senior class, Although small, only two, they made a big impact on the team and Sutcliffe expects to see similar traits in this year's seniors, which is twice as large as last year. Nicole Gremillion (Missouri City, Texas/Elkins), Ashley Kopp (Burr Ridge, Ill./Hinsdale South), Shelby Miller (Ottawa, Kan./Ottawa) and Erika Oswald(Glenview, Ill./Glenbrook South) will be relied on heavily this season given the youth within the Huskie softball program.
"This year, we have a great starting senior class," Sutcliffe said. "All four are going to contribute in their own ways. Their leadership and flexibility with their positioning has been very helpful."
A leader for the Huskies since her sophomore year, Miller is the heart and soul of NIU softball program. A leader on and off the field, she is one of only two players to start all 58 games for NIU in 2013. A two-time team captain, Miller spent the bulk of her career at second, but has played first and third base as well as shortstop. A career .305 hitter, Miller established career high in doubles (11), triples (2) and runs scored (22).
A first team All-MAC selection, Gremillion has made her mark on the Huskie record book. The senior from the Lone Star State is second and fifth on NIU's list for runs scored in a single season scoring 47 runs in 2012 and 41 last year. She is also third on the school's all-time list for runs scored in a career. The Huskie southpaw established career highs in home runs (5), RBIs (30) and doubles (13).
Kopp came on strong for the Huskies in 2013. The 5-3 third baseman led the team with eight home runs, a career high, including a grand slam. She tallied career highs in hits (35), runs (19), RBIs (20) and doubles (6). She was named to the MAC All-Tournament Team after batting .375 with a home run, an RBI, two runs scored and making some sensational defensive plays.
Oswald stepped into the starting catcher role last year and did an outstanding job handling the Huskie pitching staff and chipping in offensively. She recorded 35 hits, including 11 doubles and two home runs, scored 19 runs and drove in 25 runs, all career highs.
The five juniors on the Huskie roster will be expected to be major contributors as well. The lone returning starting pitcher, Jessica Sturm (Wichita, Kan./Goddard) made great strides last year and will be looked upon to be the workhorse for the Huskies and a leader to the younger NIU pitchers. Last season, Sutcliffe employed a two-pitcher system down the stretch in each game and it was very effective. Bryanna Phelan(Coal City, Ill./Coal City) was solid in centerfield for the Huskies last year and will be in the mix in the outfield once again this year.
Allyson Hecht (Huntington Beach, Calif./Edison), Kaitlyn Barrett(Monticello, Ill./Monticello) and her sister Kristyn were all big contributors on the base paths for NIU last year as pinch runners. Kristyn has distinguished herself as one of the top four Huskie outfielders so far through practice and is battling for a starting spot.
The smallest group on the team, the sophomore class features a veteran from last year's squad, Delani Vest (Elburn, Ill./Kaneland) and transfer Emily Naegele(Oak Forest, Ill./Oak Forest), who comes to NIU by way of Radford University. Naegele has gained the edge at the catcher's spot, while Vest, who played in 29 games last season, starting 13, will be competing for playing time as well.
There are eight members of the Huskies 18-woman roster that have not played an inning for NIU. Seven of the eight are freshmen, the largest class on the team by a wide margin.
Four of the seven freshmen, Jordyn Bowen (Libertyville, Ill./Grayslake) Kali Kossakowski (Elgin, Ill./St. Edward), Angela Roberts (Flossmoor, Ill./Homewood-Flossmoor) and Rebecca Rupard (Normal, Ill./Normal West) hail from the state of Illinois. Kayti Grable (Santee, Calif./Santee), Morgan Leonard (Peoria, Ariz./Sunrise Mountain) and Skylar Weinstein(Scottsdale, Ariz./Desert Mountain) came from the West to DeKalb.
"Our freshmen are developing really well, they're learning that our game isn't just skill based," Sutcliffe said. "They really have to have the softball IQ to keep up with the speed of our game, keep up with the defensive positioning and know that you have to study a scouting report and learn the opponent as much as you know yourself. That is going to be a key in their success. We've got four freshmen legitimately fighting to get on the field at all times and between the four of them, I'm pretty excited about what they're going to bring."
All the Huskies will look to navigate another challenging schedule which consists of the always tough MAC slate and midweek games against some of the top competition in the Midwest and local teams like Loyola, Northwestern and UIC. While NIU was successful in the conference portion of its schedule, Sutcliffe is hoping to see a better performance from the Huskies in those midweek contests.
"We've already discussed our midweek games for this season," she said. "Last season that was a big letdown for us. For whatever reason, I don't think we put our best foot forward within those games so we're already having those discussions about playing those games to prepare us for the conference weekends. They need to take pride in who we're play during the week because they are the local favorites who we're recruiting against and they need to go after those with just as much intensity as they do with the conference schedule."
While Sutcliffe wants to see an improvement in the team's performance in nonconference action, she knows winning the MAC is the top priority. The Huskies raised some eyebrows down the stretch in conference play and in the MAC Tournament. The Huskie head coach wants her team to build on the success of last season and make a similar run in the conference tournament this year.
"We enjoyed being the dark horse last year. We rallied around that role," Sutcliffe said. "Now that we have the MAC Tournament experience under us and getting to the championship game, we realized that we can win the MAC and we can put a run together when it counts."
This year's motto is simple, "win the weekend." If the Huskies can not only match last year's success, but exceed it.