DeKALB – There is a big sense of optimism with the Northern Illinois softball team.
Last season, the Huskies went into the Mid-American Conference tournament as the No. 4 seed, making it all the way to the final before losing to Central Michigan.
This year, with key returners such as junior pitcher Jessica Sturm, senior outfielder Nicole Gremillion, senior utility player Ashley Kopp and senior infielder Shelby Miller, in addition to seven freshmen, the Huskies are thinking big.
A year ago, NIU, which sits at 5-4 and will play Northern Kentucky and Evansville on Saturday in the Evansville Tournament, got a taste of a championship game. This year, it’s all about going back again with a different result in mind.
“I think they just finally realized they can do it, and they can win, and they’re good enough to do that,” NIU second-year coach Christina Sutcliffe said. “I don’t know if they went into that tournament really believing they were good enough or deserved it. And I think now, that’s been the biggest thing, is I want them to expect to win, not just want to win. And I think now they expect to win.”
After spending seven seasons as an assistant coach at Miami (Ohio), Sutcliffe was hired at NIU, replacing Lindsay Chouinard, in June of 2012. She took over a program that went 19-34 in Chouniard’s last season and had only two seniors returning. The Huskies went 27-31 and 14-8 in conference play during Sutcliffe’s first campaign.
Miller said Sutcliffe brought a fresh outlook to the program when she took over.
“[Sutcliffe was] just really excited about the players that she was [inhereting], really got us excited to win now, not necessarily looking towards the future like sometimes when new coaches come in,” Miller said. “She really came in with a great attitude that really got us excited for [last] season.”
Sturm said Sutcliffe came in with a lot of energy, and focused on giving players individual attention.
“She’ll really take the time, like if you’re struggling with something, she’ll take the time and correct it and make sure you’re doing things right, instead of putting it off and letting it go,” Sturm said. “She’ll correct the problem right then and there.”
Sutcliffe said that during the run to the MAC tournament final, the players bought into the coaches’ scouting reports and executed them, and were able to ride a wave of momentum.
This season, she said the players know the system that much better, have high expectations and are developing a winning culture.
In 2014, NIU wants to be the one celebrating at the end of the MAC tournament, not sitting in the dugout watching its opponent.
“That’s our biggest goal. It’s been our goal for my four years here,” Miller said. “I expect to leave with a ring, so we’ll see.”