Alex Jones has seen enough baseball in his three full seasons playing shortstop for Northern Illinois to know talent, and to know chemistry.
He’s played in 157 of a possible 165 games since arriving on campus, including all 57 a year ago, and believes the team that returns seven positional starters and most of the pitching staff is ready to build off a 30-17 finish and put NIU in the conversation for a Mid-American Conference championship.
The Huskies recorded just the fourth 30-win season in program history a year ago after an 0-10 start, which also was the program’s first season with a winning record since 2008.
That experience gives Jones and his teammates evidence they have the mental fortitude to go along with the talent to challenge not only the school record of 34 wins, but the 2007 and 2008 third-place finishes in the MAC tournament that to date are the program’s deepest runs.
“This should be one of the best seasons NIU’s ever had,” said Jones, an all-MAC and all-Midwest Region first team pick a year ago. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we set some really high marks and without a doubt a MAC championship is definitely in the cards.”
The lineup not only returns Jones (.352 avg., 6 triples, 47 RBIs) but MAC Freshman of the Year Jeff Zimmerman (.326, 11 HR, 47 RBIs), junior Jamison Wells (.321, 16 doubles, 27 stolen bases) and fellow senior and second team all-MAC selection Troy White (.304, 12 stolen bases, 45 RBIs). It’s a veteran group that expects to score runs in bunches.
“This is going to be, possibly, one of the best lineups in the MAC,” White said. “We have our speedster guys, we have our line drive, consistent hitters and we have our power guys in the middle of the lineup. We have a great mixture of talent and varied skills.”
The pitching staff returns two frontline senior starters in Tony Manville and Tom Barry and closer Kyle Glancy (12 saves) who was named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association’s Stopper of the Year watch list. He was the only player from the MAC named to any such list.
“I’m just excited because this probably one of the most talented teams we’ve had here and I’m really excited to see if we can put it together,” Glancy said. “As for being on the watch list, it’s just an honor and it just helps because the program gets recognized on a national level. I don’t feel any different as an individual. I’m ready to go out on a big note and try to get that conference championship.”
The rest of the rotation and bullpen roles will be worked out early in the season, but having your ace and your closer back gives the lineup a good feeling that whatever runs they do push across will stand up – especially going into the ninth.
“The game’s over in our eyes,” Jones said of Glancy.
The Huskies’ season starts Friday with a series at Tennessee, which kicks off a tough non-conference schedule that includes games against Texas Tech, UIC and Illinois.
Also on the early schedule are three of the NCAA’s top 25 – No. 11 St. John’s, No. 17 Arizona State and No. 24 Oregon State.
“Trial by fire sharpens these guys up – we get a chance to see some good teams early,” coach Ed Mathey said. “The other thing that (schedule) does is it really exposes any shortcomings, anything we have to work on. You’re going to find it out what it is pretty quickly.”
The Huskies believe having gone through the non-conference gauntlet Mathey has traditionally set up for his teams have prepared them for the success they expect.
Mathey sees the chip on their shoulders, and combined with the talent the team has, could lead to special things.
“We’re feeling confident,” Glancy said. “It seems like that year we can really go to the next level and win the MAC championship and hopefully get an NCAA berth.”