Almost isn’t enough for coach

By Joe Lacdan

Her Huskies had just hung tough with one of the top teams in the nation, and even without NIU’s ace pitcher, her defense cooled down 12th-ranked DePaul’s hot bats for five innings.

But it couldn’t wipe the grimace off the face of softball coach Donna Martin, who has grown sick of moral victories.

Despite a solid performance on the mound from junior Jolene Heller, who held the Blue Demons scoreless until the sixth inning, errors cost NIU Wednesday afternoon as the Huskies dropped a 3-0 decision at home. DePaul (43-12-1 overall) tacked on two runs in the sixth and one unearned in the seventh to claim the shutout victory. The setback marked NIU’s fourth straight loss.

Martin, who has coached NIU to two Mid-American Conference championships, thinks her team should come out on top, no matter how tough the opponent.

“I expect to win,” said Martin, who until this spring has never headed a losing team in her seven years as coach. “I’m tired of losing. I can only hope they are too.

“I’m tired of being satisfied with playing OK. That’s not what this program is about.”

Clinging to a 0-0 standoff at the bottom of the sixth, the Huskies (16-32) put themselves in a position to win. But continuing a trend that has become all too familiar for NIU this season, they failed to capitalize on opportunities both on offense and defense. In the sixth, DePaul’s standout hurler Sarah Martz, who did not pitch in the game, drilled a triple over the arms of NIU centerfielder Kelly Redican. Martz eventually scored, and an error by third baseman Megan Meyer allowed the Blue Demons’ Liz Bouck to tally a run.

In the sixth, junior Samantha Knoll advanced to third on a Suzie Rizek single, but NIU first baseman Paige Shemoski grounded out to end the inning.

“Today’s game was the story of our season,” Martin said. “Missed opportunities at the plate, missed opportunities at the field …we haven’t found a way to overcome that yet.”

Martin said her team didn’t suffer from fatigue and had no excuses for its botched chances.

“We had no reason not to be primed and ready,” she said. “When you’re playing the No. 12 team in the country, you better be motivated. I don’t care who we have out there, I think we can beat them.”

Martin chose to rest No. 1 pitcher Courtney Witvliet for Friday’s season finale against MAC foe Western Michigan. Heller (1-8) had one of her better outings of the season, striking out three in six innings while walking none. The junior gave up just three hits until the sixth inning against a team that ranks in the country’s top 20 at the plate. Senior outfielder Suzie Rizek went 2-for-3 at bat.

Despite NIU’s struggles, the Huskies will enter the postseason with confidence knowing they have the ability to play with the MAC’s top teams if they are consistent. NIU has not been swept.

“We can compete with anyone,” Heller said, “as long as we just go out as a team and work hard.”