Feb. 7, 2013
DEKALB, Ill. - The Northern Illinois University softball team opens its 2013 campaign in Waco, Texas at the 12th annual Getterman Classic hosted by Baylor University with a doubleheader Friday.
The Huskies open the season against in-state rival Illinois State at 11 a.m., the first of two meetings this season, before taking on Sam Houston State at 1:30 p.m. Northern Illinois plays the host No. 22 Baylor Bears in a single game on Saturday, before finishing up the tournament with a doubleheader against SHSU and Baylor Sunday. Fans can follow all the action live, via Gametracker at NIUHuskies.com.
This is the first of five preseason tournaments NIU will compete in this season and it will be the first under new head coach Christina Sutcliffe. The first-year Huskie leader came to DeKalb after spending seven seasons at Mid-American Conference foe Miami. Since her arrival, Sutcliffe's primary objective has been instilling in her team is the desire to be successful on and off the field.
"My main goal coming in as a new coach has been getting them to not only want to win, but expect to win," Sutcliffe said. "That's been our main focus. That doesn't mean necessarily on the field, it means off the field as well. Everyday we're trying to teach them to do something great and be better than you were the day before.
With seven sophomores and five freshmen, Sutcliffe takes over a young squad. While the team may be young, rebuilding is not in her vocabulary.
"Everybody always tells me we have a young team, or throws out that we're rebuilding," she said. "I don't really believe in that. I don't believe the field knows your age. I don't feel that because you're a freshman that you should have lower expectations of yourself. If you are a senior, you've been playing the game long enough. Once you get here, it's all about playing."
Despite its youth, Northern Illinois has outstanding senior leadership in Jennifer Barnett
and Amanda Sheppard
"I'm lucky. I feel like I've walked into a situation where we have four phenomenal leaders, two of which are in our senior class," she said. "I've been a part of teams where it's been tough to pick out a single leader."
Four-year starters for the Huskies, Barnett and Sheppard have developed and grown in the program since their arrival, excelling on the field, in the classroom and in the community. Barnett has battled through several injuries during her career to stay on the field and earned second-team all-MAC honors last season. A cornerstone of the Huskie defense, Sheppard started all 53 games for NIU last year. She had a great fall, working on her offense. Sutcliffe believes she can be a five-tool player.
Another of those team leaders Sutcliffe spoke of, Shelby Miller looks to build off a career year last season. She can play anywhere in the infield and she provides offensive pop in the middle of the Huskie line up.
"Shelby bleeds NIU," Sutcliffe said. "She is definitely on board with the expectations of winning, true utility infielder, might see her on first or second, she might see some time at short and she is definitely going to be somewhere in the middle of our order hitting."
One of the more versatile players on the Huskie roster, Nicole Gremillion has played in the outfield, infield and saw time in the pitcher's circle during her career. The junior from Missouri City, Texas has also been effective at the plate consistently placing in the top five on the team's offensive categories. Gremillion will split time between the outfield and first base, and Sutcliffe feels she can be an RBI producer.
Ashley Kopp and Madison Murphy are competing for the starting job at third base. Murphy, who came to NIU after two years at Lake Land Community College, has the edge at third base. She has done a nice job adjusting to Division I. Kopp, who was converted into an outfielder in the fall, has developed into one of the Huskies better outfielders.
Junior Erica Oswald and sophomore Emily Woller are competing for the catcher position. The two will platoon early on until someone wins the position. Both are evenly matched. It's going to come down to whoever steps up at the plate and who can be the vocal leader.
The Barrett sisters, Kaitlyn and Kristyn, are both battling for spots in the outfield. Kristyn is a little bit ahead of her sister as Kaitlyn is battling back from an injury suffered in the fall. Fellow sophomore Bryanna Phelan, who started 36 of 49 games for NIU in the outfield last season, stayed on campus over the summer taking some classes and working with the NIU strength staff preparing for the upcoming season. She is in the mix for one of the outfield spots as well.
Two of seven freshmen on the squad, Jillian Mattor and Murielle Vansach will be competing for playing time in the outfield. Described as a raw by Sutcliffe, Mattor is explosive and is learning the game and how to use her own tools. Vansach has shown some power with the bat in practice. She will also be used as a pinch runner.
Delani Vest and Stephanie Wonders will be looking to crack the line up in the infield. Wonders is adjusting to the college game and making good progress. A late addition for Sutcliffe, Vest signed with NIU two weeks before school started. She has gotten off to a great start and is particularly impressive at the plate.
"Offensively, for someone her age, she has more bat control and more of an offensive plan and knowledge of where she truly wants to put the ball then I've probably seen out of 90 percent of freshman coming through a program," Sutcliffe said. "She just gets the game and has a true mind for the game. You can't teach that."
Three sophomores and a freshman are battling for two starting spots in the pitcher's circle. Emily Norton, a transfer from Radford University and sister of former Huskie Carly Norton, has taken control of the No. 1 pitcher's spot. The fourth team captain, the Oak Park native has already displayed great leadership skills since coming to campus.
Veterans Allyson Hecht and Jessica Sturm, both sophomores, gained valuable experience last season. Sturm, a lefty, made 19 starts in the circle last year, while Hecht made 11 starts. Freshman Susana Gurney has been getting adjusted to the college game, but is showing promise.
While players and coaches change, the goal for the NIU softball program has not, winning the MAC. That is what the preseason schedule is all about. The Mid-American Conference is strong league and a league Sutcliffe knows well. She knows that the first step is making the conference tournament. Once in Akron, everyone has a chance.
"The most important thing about our conference is getting in that conference tournament and putting the most consistent weekend together," she said. "One or two games literally can separate the top of our conference from the bottom in most years."