NIU softball: Huskies head to MAC Tournament as 6th seed

By Chris Loggins

The softball MAC Tournament looks to be an interesting one as usual, as several teams have promising chances of making some noise.

The Huskies have remained one of the top teams in the MAC throughout the season, finishing 28-23 overall and 11-9 in the MAC. Only three teams finished the year with more wins than NIU: the Kent State Golden Flashes (39-11, 17-4 MAC), the Miami (Ohio) RedHawks (31-22, 13-7 MAC) and the Ball State Cardinals (29-23, 14-5 MAC).

The Huskies found a great balance throughout the season, starting out rough but quickly turning things around and leading the MAC West for much of the year. Though they were a powerhouse at home, finishing the year 12-4 at Mary M. Bell Field, they struggled to find a groove on the road, ending the year 6-11 away from DeKalb. On neutral sites they managed to stay above .500, keeping a 10-8 record.

“I don’t think I’m worried about playing on the road,” said head coach Christina Sutcliffe. “It’s the MAC tournament, they’re going to figure it out. This week is pretty brutal for them, having finals and putting it all together. Once we get through the tournament they’ll put it all behind them.”

The offense began slow but ended up being a big part of the success of the team. They’ve been able to stay consistent with top-to-bottom consistency through the lineup. The offense set an NIU record for home runs in a season with 43, beating a previous record of 35 set in 2011.

“I think our offense has probably been the most consistent thing we’ve had all season,” Sutcliffe said, according to an April 27 Northern Star article. “They’re doing a really good job for the most part.”

The offense has been highlighted by big numbers set by several players in the lineup. Sophomore Kayti Grable has led the way for much of the season. She ended the season with 14 home runs, setting the record for a single season by a Huskie and beating a previous record of 11 set in 2010. She also jumped to third place on the single-season slugging percentage list with a .769 and second on the single-season list for RBIs with 45.

Freshman infielder Alaynie Woollard quickly made a huge impact, hitting 10 home runs and tying for third place on the single-season record list.

Junior catcher Emily Naegele hit for an average of .311 with six home runs and 38 runs batted in.

The pitching staff has garnered a three-pitcher rotation, consisting of senior Jessica Sturm, who ended the season 11-11, freshman Keegan Hayes who ended the season 15-9, and freshman Tara Thacker, who didn’t get many opportunities to play but seems to be a part of the plan going forward. Though Thacker finished the season 2-3, Sutcliffe has high hopes for what she can accomplish.

“She’s settling in really nice,” Sutcliffe said, according to an April 15 Northern Star article. “Our pitching staff is going to compete until the end. It’s a battle for who’s going to get some innings right now, but we just try to play matchups with the three of them.”

The 28-23 finish to the season marks the first time the team finished over .500 since 2003, when they went 23-21-1. With the tournament soon approaching, it’ll be interesting to see how things play out. The Huskies’ first game will be against Miami (Ohio) 5 p.m. Wednesday in Akron, Ohio.

“Extremely confident in our team,” Sutcliffe said. “Not too worried about who we’re playing at this point. Just worried about what we’re doing and how we’re going to get off the field. At this point, we’re not focusing on anybody else but ourselves.”

NIU went 1-1 against Miami (Ohio) during the regular season. The Huskies won, 2-1, and lost, 4-3, April 17 in Oxford, Ohio.