Northwestern's baseball and softball teams were hit-or-miss in 2013. What can we look forward to next year?
Northwestern did not end the season the way it wanted to, losing eight of its final 10 games. However, the 'Cats shouldn’t hang their heads: They finished only five games away from a Big Ten Tournament appearance.
The most important component from one season to the next is improvement. The Wildcats managed to finish in ninth place in the Big Ten, which was two spots ahead of their last-place finish last year.
Unfortunately, improving next year might be a struggle for Paul Stevens and company. With some hard work, the Wildcats may be able to equal their performance from 2013.
For starters, the 'Cats will be losing seniors Zach Morton and Jack Harvey — the team’s top two RBI producers with 31 and 28 RBIs respectively. The team will also be losing speedster leadoff man Trevor Stevens, whose 40 runs and 19 stolen bases both led Northwestern.
The pitching staff is also losing two of its top aces. Morton and Luke Farrell were the Wildcats' top two starting pitchers over the season with a combined record of 6-9. They also posted the best ERA of any starters on the team—Ferrell posted a 2.16 ERA and Morton had a 2.86.
Sure, this isn’t the end of the world. Every year teams lose players to graduation. However, other teams in the Big Ten also recruit much better classes than Northwestern does, so losing players takes a harder toll on the Wildcats.
Other players will have to step up.
Returning freshman Jack Mitchell, who was fourth on the team with 19 RBIs, will need to step up his production. A big part will be developing patience at the plate. A .218 average is fine for a raw freshman, but not for a contributing sophomore.
Expect Kyle Ruchim to be the team’s MVP next year. He will be both the top bat and arm returning to the 'Cats' lineup next year. Ruchim had the most doubles in Big Ten play (10) while his .361 batting average was fifth best in the Big Ten.
With his 4-2 record and 2.60 ERA in relief, Paul Stevens has a big decision to make: whether or not to move Ruchim to the starting rotation. If Ruchim can play at the same level next year and show he can be a dominant starting pitcher, don’t be surprised if the incoming senior wins All-Big Ten honors.
Another reason the Wildcats should be hopeful is the return of incoming junior Brandon Magallones. Though he started the season with a few bumps, he finished strong, earning Big Ten Pitcher of the Week in the final week of the regular season. With impressive wins against powerhouses Michigan and Indiana, Magallones clearly has the talent to compete.
However, he needs to work on his off-speed delivery. His game is quite similar to Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett. When he’s on, nobody can touch him. When Magallones struggles, he tends to leave balls over the plate and hit batters. He led the team in home runs allowed (4), doubles allowed (13) and players hit (9). Freshmen Mason Reed and Matt Portland will probably battle for the third starting pitcher position.
The 'Cats take a big hit to graduation, and it’s going to take some veteran coaching from Paul Stevens to keep the team's foundation strong.
If young players can mature into bigger shoes, Northwestern might be able to return to their 2013 performance, but don’t get your hopes up too high 'Cats fans.
A Big Ten Tournament win against Indiana was expected from the fifth-place Wildcats. However, Northwestern struggled in the second round against fourth seed Wisconsin, who the 'Cats failed to defeat on three occasions throughout the season.
While the season may not have ended with the glory of a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament, Wildcat softball has a lot to be giddy over for the 2014 season.
Northwestern returns its best three hitters next season.
Incoming senior Marisa Bast leads the pack with 44 RBIs on the season and a .312 batting average. She started every game for the Wildcats en route to earning All-Big Ten honors. Bast was eighth in the Big Ten in RBIs. Her leadership will be key to leading the 'Cats in the right direction.
A couple of incoming juniors make up the heart of what should be an excellent squad in 2014.
A second team All-Big Ten honoree, Anna Edwards gives the Wildcats a solid defensive catcher and a big helping of offensive power. Edwards finished the season with 42 RBIs, which was the exact amount of runs fellow sophomore and battery counterpart sophomore Amy Letourneau produced.
Talk about making history; Letourneau became the first player in Big Ten competition to win the batting title and strikeout crown in the same year. It’s safe to say Letourneau is the MVP for the Wildcats as well as the Big Ten. Not enough evidence? Well, opposing players could not touch Letourneau, posting a Big Ten low .184 batting average against the sophomore.
Bast might be the voice in the locker room, but Letourneau will most certainly be the strongest presence on the field. Whether she is in the circle or scooping up balls at first base, Letourneau’s performance will impact every single game next season.
Defense shouldn’t be an issue either.
Junior Mari Majam excelled in the outfield for the Wildcats, earning All-Big Ten honors for her balanced game of solid offense and excellent defense. If Majam can cut down on her strikeouts and pick some better pitches to swing at, she could be another powerhouse hitter for the 'Cats next season.
Big Ten All-Defensive team freshman Brianna LeBeau was the best glove for the 'Cats all season. Defense is key in order for Northwestern to take that next step in its development. While Northwestern has some of the best of the bats in the Big Ten, keeping high scoring teams like Michigan, Nebraska and Minnesota in check is vital.
However, there is one cloud looming over the 'Cats bright future. Senior pitcher Meghan Lamberth is graduating, so Northwestern needs to find a No. 2 in the rotation to compliment Letourneau. Will it be Kristen Wood? Her couple of starts didn’t go particularly well, posting a 7.88 ERA on the season.
All but one piece is in place for the Wildcats to become one of the top competitors in the Big Ten. If somebody steps up at pitcher, don’t be surprised when the Wildcats finish in the top three spots next season.
Behind the pitching of Letourneau and the 'Cats' sure-to-be explosive offense, Northwestern is poised to be the dark horse in next year’s Big Ten Championship.