DeKALB – Ed Mathey knew his Northern Illinois baseball team had a lot to prove this season. In 2012, a season that began with high expectations, the Huskies finished only 15-40 and 7-20 in Mid-American Conference play.
Fast forward a year. NIU sits in second place in the MAC and first in the MAC West with a 13-5 record. The Huskies are 19-24 overall.
With nine games remaining in conference play, the Huskies are looking to win the MAC regular-season title and get the top seed in the conference tournament, which takes place May 22 through 26 in Avon, Ohio. NIU begins a three-game series at Toledo this afternoon.
"I think what the motivation for these guys was, is that the guys that are returning felt that we left a lot out on the table last year. Felt that we had a pretty good club, felt that we could have played better than what we did, in terms of wins and losses," Mathey said. "I think they were motivated by that. You get a whole bunch of new kids in there, new guys that have some enthusiasm, really don't know what to expect and they just kind of get on board with what the returners are doing."
NIU junior pitcher Eli Anderson cites team chemistry as one reason for the success this year. He saw the Huskies lose their first six games, and win only four of their first 19 contests before conference play. However, Anderson said that, in a way, losing so much early helped in the long run.
"I hate to say it, but coming through all the losing at the beginning of the year, when you lose together and then you start winning together, it kind of brings everyone together," Anderson said. "Because we've been through the worst of the worst and now there's nowhere to go but up."
The Huskies never have won a MAC title. In 1996, they won the Midwestern Collegiate Conference tournament, losing to Northeastern Illinois in the NCAA play-in series. NIU's last NCAA tournament appearance was in 1972.
One big difference between this year's team and last year's squad, which finished last in the MAC West, is pitching.
NIU had a team ERA of 6.34 last year. This season, the Huskies boast a 4.46 ERA and a strong weekend rotation of Anderson (2.16), Alex Klonowski (3.82) and freshman Jordan Ruckman (3.41).
As Mathey puts it, his pitching staff doesn't have a ton of "stuff" guys. Anderson leads the team in strikeouts, but has only 57 in 83 1/3 innings. What's gotten pitchers, such as Klonowski, by is control and good defense.
"Just hitting locations and making pitches when it counts," Klonowski said.
Anderson also has been a workhorse. He leads the MAC in innings pitched and threw four consecutive complete games this year.
"I like to go as far into a game as I can," he said. "As soon as it becomes an issue with me not giving our team the best chance to win, then that's when I come out. I feel like as deep as I can go into a game, I feel I can give the team a pretty good shot."