FROM CBB NEWS SOURCE
DeKalb, Ill. – The Huskies head into the 2009 season without 10 key performers who helped NIU to consecutive 16-win seasons in the Mid-American Conference in 2007 and 2008. Last season, those players accounted for 42 percent of NIU’s runs scored, 38 percent of runs driven in, 57 percent of stolen bases, 69 percent of innings pitched, 61 percent of wins and 54 percent of strikeouts. The group includes a pair of Major League draft picks in Bobby Stevens and Trevor Feeney, as well as second team All-MAC performer Jeff Thomas and 2008 Rawlings Gold Glove honoree Adam Holdenrid.
Losing that much production could be detrimental to any team, but head coach Ed Mathey and his staff brought in a 2008 recruiting class that ranked 65th in the nation to help replenish the roster, and they are confident that the rookies and returners from last year can keep the winning tradition alive.
“It’s going to be an interesting year,” said Mathey. “We are hopeful and we have talent, but it’s young talent in key spots. They came from a great recruiting class and we think they have a chance to help us immediately.”
Many of the players on the roster are capable of playing more than one position, which will help the Huskies alter the lineup to exploit the matchups.
“It’s going to be a year of who’s producing and who gives us the best chance that day,” Mathey said. “We are a team of versatility.”
In order to help the young players adapt and improve, Mathey will count on the upperclassmen for leadership, beginning with fifth-year seniors and team captains Matt Behren and Pat Minogue.
“Obviously, our core of seniors will need to provide leadership,” Mathey said. “They have done a good job so far.
“Our juniors also need to step up. Jordin Hood and Dave Reynolds are now upperclassmen and can help provide insight as well as shoulder some of the burden. We look for leadership out of those two as well. “
On the mound, Mathey has seniors Brandon Copp and Andy Deain to provide leadership to a young staff.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
Since 2003, the Huskies have notched the four highest win totals in school history and last year finished fourth overall in the MAC which was the highest finish in 31 years. In order to continue those winning ways, the Huskies must find arms to replace the loss of three starting pitchers from a year ago.
“We want to continue to build on the success of the past few years,” said Mathey. “Our goal as a coaching staff is to see our program be consistently near the top of the MAC and we feel we are on the verge of doing that.
“This year, we have to find some quality pitching that we lost. We need to have guys who can compete in the strike zone and give our guys a chance to play defense. Keeping the opponents scoring down and giving our guys a chance to score runs are going to be the biggest keys. Pitching is a lot of baseball and we were fortunate last year to have some great ones. We need to match that first of all, and then it’s going to be a lot about our ability to go out and compete.”
The Huskies rotation lost three of its four starters from last year with Copp the lone returner. Last season, the senior righthander logged 61.1 innings giving up 72 hits, 48 earned runs and 36 walks along with 48 strikeouts and a 7.04 ERA.
“Brandon has the ability and has shown brief episodes of being dominant,” Mathey said. “He has been on the mound for big games, and we’re hoping that he can lead our staff.”
To boost the rotation, Mathey will also experiment with last year’s closer Andy Deain, a senior righty who led the MAC with 10 saves and had a school record 35 appearances. The 2008 second-team All-MAC selection worked 41 innings with a 4.83 ERA and 52 strikeouts.
“Andy Deain has been on the back end of our bullpen his whole career here,” said Mathey. “We’re designing a whole new role for Andy this year, seeing if we can get his pitch count up to be a starter for us. Andy’s arm is as good as anybody’s and we’re going to try to get more innings out of him, maybe 70-90 as opposed to 30-40.
“Having said that, if the rest of our staff starts to shape up, we could easily move Andy to the back end of the bull pen and very possibly have him be one of the best closers in the league and in the Mid-west.”
NIU will rely heavily on the development of the young, talented arms to fill the rest of the rotation. Left-handed junior college transfer Chuck Lukanen figures to be in the mix.
“One of the lead guys will be Chuck Lukanen, one of the main starting pitchers for North Iowa Area Community College,” said Mathey. “He is a left-handed pitcher with excellent command of the change up. His fastball is somewhere in the mid 80’s. He gets the ball, throws fast, throws strikes and challenges hitters.”
Freshmen Chris Wakefield, Jake Hermsen and Zach Badgley will alll get early chances to prove themselves as will senior Nick Badgley and junior Dave Reynolds, who made eight appearances, four starts, compiling a 5-0 record in 27 innings with a 5.33 ERA and 15 strikeouts.
“We have a great freshmen class of arms that have a chance to go out there and do some special things.
“Dave Reynolds is often overlooked,” said Mathey. “He is a left-handed pitcher with a good curveball and may be a weekend guy for us.”
If Deain stays in the rotation, the Huskies will have to replace the three main cogs of the 2008 bullpen as they already lost Dan Atkenson and Dave Nykiel to graduation. Sophomore Zach Oates will take on an increased work load to fill one of the voids.
“Zach Oates throws strikes and is tall with a different release point than most hitters are used to,” Mathey said.
In addition to Nick and Zach Badgley, junior Cody Beck, sophomore Tom Zelasko and freshmen Tom Barry and Kyle Glancy along with Hersmen and Wakefield will all get a chance to make a name for themselves in the bullpen.
“We’ve got some guys to replace last year’s bullpen that are physically ready, but it will be the mental side that determines their success,” said Mathey. “We have a lot of guys that can fill more than one role. It’s not as concrete as it was last year, but that’s what happens when you lose as many players as we did.”
Perhaps the most solid aspect of this year’s team will be the veteran catching unit led by seniors Matt Behren and 2008 first-team All-MAC selection Justin Behm. Behm has 95 career starts and a career batting average of .281 while Behren has 85 starts and a .278 average. Behm led the Huskies with 11 homeruns last season and Behren led the 2007 team with a .352 average. Both have the versatility to play first base and the outfield corners which will give Mathey the opportunity to have them in the lineup at the same time.
“Matt Behren, after an injury-plagued season last year, will be ready to go,” Mathey said. “He handles pitchers well and is a great quarterback back there. He knows the game well and is a calming influence on the team. We’re happy to have him back healthy.
“Justin Behm did a great job in Matt’s absence last year. He did a nice job of running the team and keeping opposing runners from running. We will actually be looking to do a bit more with those two this year, including using them in the outfield to try to create some versatility and get them both in the lineup. We think they will both be middle of the lineup hitters for us.”
Junior Sam Kapacinskas, sophomore Kevin Smith and freshman Brett Frantini could all see time behind the plate as well.
The loss of shortstop Bobby Stevens, to the MLB draft leaves a large hole to fill in the middle, but the infield will be anchored by the corners with junior third baseman Jordin Hood and first baseman Dave Reynolds.
Reynolds, who has 59 career starts, earned a selection to the 2008 MAC All-Tournament Team and hit .294 last season with seven home runs and 38 RBI. He also led the infield with a .988 fielding percentage.
“Dave Reynolds is an excellent first baseman and a good glove guy, but there will be times where he will be on the mound or in the outfield,” Mathey said. “He had a solid year as a sophomore and we are looking for him to improve upon those numbers and be a main force in our lineup. He is a good hitter, understands the game well and makes our infield better. “
Hood has 103 career starts and led the team last year with 71 hits and 43 RBI. He also had seven home runs and a .321 average along with 12 steals. He started 38 games at second base in 2007 and could see time there again this year.
“On the other corner we have more experience with Jordin Hood,” Mathey said. “He battled and I think he will be a better third baseman this year because of it. We anticipate him being a main stay in our lineup. “
Behind Reynolds and Hood are sophomore Joe Etcheverry and highly touted freshman Troy White, respectively. Etcheverry hit .313 in 32 at-bats and tied the school record with five hits against Illinois State. White comes to NIU after turning down the Cleveland Indians as they drafted him in the 48th round of the MLB draft in 2008. Behm and freshman Nick Morreale could also see time at first base.
“Joe Etcheverry had a good season as a freshman last year,” said Mathey. “He was put in a tough role and didn’t get a lot of starts, but he always was ready to play. He swung the bat well, which is what we think he can do.
“Troy White has the makings to be a solid contributor for us. His instincts at third base are good, but he will have to adjust to the speed of the college game. He is a very capable player and will be seeing time out there. “
In the middle of the infield, sophomore Marvin Sanchez will be taking over for Stevens at shortstop.
“Marvin has all the necessary tools to be a solid Division I shortstop, but he has to continue to work things, such as attacking the ball more,” Mathey said. “At second base you can let the ball come to you a bit more than at shortstop where you have to attack the ball.”
Senior Joe Buonavolanto will return at second base, where he made 35 starts last season and ranked second among the teams’ infielders with a .976 fielding percentage.
“At second base we will have Joe Buonavolanto coming back, who has just as much experience as Bobby Stevens did,” said Mathey. “It’s up to him to capitalize on that experience and take it to his advantage.”
Freshmen Alex Beckmann and Alex Jones are both capable of playing in the middle infield.
“The middle infield is going to truly be an interesting endeavor for us,” Mathey said. “We feel we have capable players, but it’s a matter of who is going to go out and do it. “
Senior Pat Minogue is the lone returner in the outfield and will be the anchor at centerfield. He has made 159 career starts in the outfield and has a .270 career batting average with 27 stolen bases.
“Pat really came of age out there last year,” said Mathey. “He did a great job of quarterbacking the outfield and communicating with the infielders. We are looking for his leadership out there on defense. On offense, he has shown flashes of brilliance, but we hope he can do it a bit more consistently. If he can be the leadoff hitter that we envision him being, it will set up the rest of the lineup well.”
Nick Badgley figures to be one of the guys next to Minogue as he has come on strong during the offseason. He hit .258 with five RBI last year in limited action.
“Nick played well last year and had a great fall,” Mathey said. “He can play all three outfield positions, but we feel most comfortable with him in right. There may be chances where he will be pitching, but he has a great opportunity to be an everyday corner outfielder for us.”
Another player who will get a chance to play will be junior Anthony Maziur.
“Anthony will be in the mix out there,” said Mathey. “He is very fast, he is a left-handed hitter and if he can figure it out, he has a great chance for a lot of playing time this year. He covers a lot of ground in the outfield with his speed. “
Junior Nick Morreale and freshmen Brandon House and Jake Hermsen will compete for playing time as well.
“Nick Morrealle is a newcomer with a strong right-handed bat that can be imposing,” Mathey said. “He has good arm strength and will see some time possibly at first base and DH as well. “
“Brandon House redshirted last year and has a lot of wonderful tools,” said Mathey. “He can really run and is one of our fastest kids. He could be a great base stealer for us and a great cover guy in the outfield.”
“Jake Hersmen is a highly-recruited guy who also pitches,” Mathey said. “He is a right-handed hitter, but a left-handed thrower and has good arm strength out there. He will be an impressive outfielder for us for years to come.”
With Behm, Behren, Hood, Minogue and Reynolds all returning, the Huskie lineup will have a solid. The other four slots will be filled on a day-by-day basis in order to take advantage of the wide range of tools that the other NIU hitters have.
“To be successful this year we will have to rely on the veterans,” Mathey said. “Minogue needs to be at the top, setting the table for everyone else. We feel that Reynolds has a chance to be a very solid performer somewhere in the two through seven slots and that’s where our emphasis is going to be. Hood can hit for average and power and is a good baserunner. Behm will be right in the center of the lineup with guys moving around him. Behren will be back in the middle of the lineup if he can get back to form.
“I think the one thing that we have though is versatility and our lineup will depend on the matchups. If we need to have a speed lineup out there, we can do that. We can play a more defensive lineup as well. We have a chance to do the right-handed lineup and the left-handed too. We can mix and match a lot. We will find out a lot throughout the early part of the season.”
NIU will face a tough 2009 schedule that begins with consecutive weekend tournaments at two of college baseball’s top venues at Mississippi State and Arizona State. The Huskies are slated to face four 2008 NCAA qualifiers and 14 total teams who made postseason appearances a year ago.
“Our schedule is very challenging,” said Mathey. “ We open at Mississippi State, one of the neatest places to play in the nation. We will have our hands full down there with four games in three days beginning with a doubleheader right out of the box. That won’t be easy, but we look forward to that.”
The next weekend, the Huskies travel to Arizona State to face the No. 13 Sun Devils, No. 10 Missouri and No. 25 Oregon State.
“It doesn’t get much tougher with our trip to Arizona State where all three opponents could be in the super-regionals this year,” Mathey said. “Our goal is to go down there and win some baseball games. We play every game to win and we will need to play at a pretty high level. Even if we do, we may not win, but it will make us better in the long run.
“That’s going to be one of the keys this year—how we handle those first two weekends. It could rock your confidence or it could be a great thing. It’s a very challenging start for us and we think it’s one of the better non-conference schedules in the nation this year, which is good for us.”
In addition to 15 home games, the Huskies will also host a home game against UW-Milwaukee at Road Ranger Stadium in Rockford, Ill. In conference play, NIU will have four home series and five on the road, including a trip to face No. 18 Kent State for three games.
“How we play on the road is going to be big,” said Mathey. “Then, of course, we have to defend our home field. Our goal this year is to win the home series and take some series on the road and hopefully get ourselves in the conference tournament again.”