Softball ready for first game of season.

By Frank Gogola

Softball is getting back in the swing of things following a successful season with a deep run in the Mid-American Conference tournament.

Under the guidance of first-year head coach Christina Sutcliffe, the Huskies (27-31, 14-8 MAC) advanced to the MAC Championship game last season. They fell to the Central Michigan Chippewas, 4-2, as CMU hoisted the MAC title after hitting a walk-off home run in the 11th inning.

“We definitely talk about it a lot,” said junior pitcher Jessica Sturm. “Our goal this year is to win the whole thing. It was definitely heartbreaking to see the other team holding up the trophy and cheering, and us just standing over there. It’s gonna be switched around this year, definitely.”

The Huskies lost two seniors from last season: infielders Jennifer Barnett and Amanda Sheppard.

“Jenny and Shep were clutch for us, not only offensively and defensively, but just their leadership and the command that they had of the field,” Sutcliffe said. “Being able to replace the vocal leadership that they brought to us along with the stability in the offensive lineup, it’s some pretty big shoes to fill.”

The Huskies return 10 players from last season, including seniors Nicole Gremillion, Ashley Kopp, Shelby Miller and Erika Oswald.

“We’ve got a really good, talented squad returning,” Sutcliffe said. “We’ve got some good senior leadership. All four seniors are returning with some playing time under them and just have really come back inspired and really looking to get at it.”

The 2014 squad features eight new players: seven freshmen and one transfer. Sophomore catcher/utility player Emily Naegele was named to the Big South Conference’s All-Freshmen Team last season at Radford University before transferring for the 2014 season.

“Our whole incoming class is really competing for a starting spot,” Sutcliffe said. “I would say three, possibly four of them may end up in the lineup in contributing roles. On the mound, we’ve got some young arms outside of Jessica Sturm.”

Aside from the seniors NIU lost, its biggest loss is pitcher Emily Norton, who is on a medical hardship. Norton was one of two starting pitchers last season along with Sturm, who will be the Huskies’ main starting pitcher this season.

“Last year, it was a little different because me and Emily Norton, the previous pitcher, we kind of shared time,” Sturm said. “If I was off, she was on; we were kind of like a duo.”

Sutcliffe said the pitching staff this season will utilize a number of pitchers to limit the damage.

“Our starting pitching staff is gonna kind of continuously rally around each other,” Sutcliffe said. “We may see two, three, possibly four pitchers within a game; their job is really to keep us in the games, and then the offense and defense are going to win them.”

The Huskies open their season Friday at the FAU Kick-Off Classic in Boca Raton, Fla. They will play Louisville and host team Florida Atlantic Friday, Ohio State and St. John’s Saturday and Tulsa Sunday.

“Really all five games are going to be tough competition,” Sutcliffe said. “Ohio State, Tulsa and Louisville were all postseason teams last year. FAU’s always battling for a postseason spot. And then St. John’s and us, anybody could win out of that. We could very easily go 3-2, 0-5, 5-0; it kind of just depends on the games we put together.”