DeKALB – Northern Illinois senior Jamison Wells told his young baseball teammates not to concern themselves with the coaches’ poll that ranked them last in the MAC West.
He and his fellow senior leaders also urged on their teammates when they went through a rough nonconference season with a 4-15 start.
This weekend, the Huskies have a chance to flip those preseason expectations upside-down when they play Ball State with the division title on the line.
“I tried telling the freshmen before the season started, [polls] don’t mean anything, because baseball is crazy, our conference is crazy,” Wells said. “The conference is up for grabs this year, and guys are finally starting to believe it. I think probably halfway through the season, guys were like, this is doable.”
NIU isn’t the only team bucking expectations.
Ball State was picked to finish fifth in the six-team MAC West during the preseason. But coach Rich Maloney, who coached the Cardinals from 1996-2002, returned this season after a 10-year stint at Michigan.
NIU coach Ed Mathey knew that at some point, Maloney would turn the Cardinals back around after they went 9-18 last year, when they finished just ahead of the Huskies.
“Their coach is a guy who’s been around for awhile, and he’s been in this league before,” Mathey said. “He’s back, and I anticipated them getting it going again. Maybe not as quickly, but they’ve been playing well as of late.”
NIU, meanwhile, posted a 7-20 conference record last season in the face of relatively high expectations. With a young roster, Wells wasn’t surprised expectations were low heading into 2013, but he said the team’s togetherness made everything easier this season.
“It’s not a secret that we weren’t picked to do so well because we’re so young,” he said. “[Mathey] just said, let’s play with enthusiasm and confidence and let’s see what happens. This is what happens when you have a team that has a lot of camaraderie, and guys are getting along, and guys aren’t fighting, there’s no cliques.”
The Huskies have gone 15-9 during conference play, which puts them two games ahead of Ball State. One win during the season-ending series in Muncie, Ind., which begins today, will give NIU the division championship.
NIU has lost seven of its last 10 games, but the Huskies have dug themselves out of slumps this season. This weekend’s series, Mathey said, will test his team’s character.
“We’re going in there limping a little bit,” Mathey said. “It’s going to be time for us to reflect on ourselves and find out who we are, and go in there and work on winning that first game.”