The Northern Illinois University softball team begins its pursuit of a conference title tonight when the Huskies face Central Michigan in their opening game of the 2011 Mid-American Conference Softball Tournament at Firestone Stadium in Akron, Ohio.
The Huskies (26-25, 13-7), who have advanced to the semifinals of the MAC Softball Tournament in each of the last two seasons, earned the No. 3 seed by virtue of their 3-1 performance this past weekend.
NIU’s opening game with the Chippewas (29-19, 13-9) is set for 6:30 p.m. Central Time.
The Huskies swept CMU at Mary M. Bell Field in the season series winning the first game 2-1, while taking the second, 8-0, in five innings.
“We’re feeling extremely good about the way we played this past weekend,” NIU head coach Lindsay Chouinard said. “We’ve meshed at the right time, we’re coming together. Having everybody back healthy and able to contribute, we’re in a really good place right now.”
Northern Illinois enters the tournament riding a three-game winning streak and is coming off a weekend sweep of Ball State. It has been a record-setting season for the Huskies as NIU has broken several school records including runs scored (290), RBIs (258), doubles (95) and home runs (35).
A big catalyst for the offensive surge has been the play of freshman Stephanie Tofft (Lincoln, Calif./Lincoln), who has rewritten NIU’s record book and made her mark on the national scene.
“When you’re talking about a person that has an on-base percentage over .500 and a slugging percentage over .600 and a batting average over .400, you’re talking about someone that’s on base all the time,” Chouinard said of Tofft. “She can steal bases, hit for power, and slap. There are just so many dimensions to Steph’s game. There isn’t a dynamic she doesn’t add.”
Tofft is 14th in the country in hitting with a team-high .440 average and her .515 on-base percentage leads the team, ranks 33rd in the country and is currently fourth on the school’s all-time list, while she leads the team with a .601 slugging percentage. Tofft leads the team in 10 offensive categories.
She compiled a school-record 36-game hitting streak this season, topping the previous record of 15, and her team-high 74 hits on the year are tied for first on NIU’s single season hits list. Her 45 runs scored, also a team best, is second on the school’s single season list, while her 37 RBIs rank fourth. Tofft has 15 doubles on the season to rank fifth in NIU’s single season list. The only Huskie to start all 51 games this season, she has made 32 starts in the outfield, eight at catcher and seven at third base.
In addition to being an offensive force that has made the rest of the line-up that much better, Tofft has contributed from the pitcher’s circle. She’s made 14 appearances, starting four games, completing three while posting a 3-3 record. Along with veteran Morgan Bittner (Long Beach, Calif./Long Beach) and freshman Nicole Gremillion (Missouri City, Texas/Elkins), the trio have developed into a solid pitching staff with each hurler bringing something different to the table.
“They all bring different looks,” she said of the pitching staff. “They’ve all had their moments where they’ve needed to be the one. They’re all a little bit tougher. They’re ready to step in, ready to finish and they want the ball.”
For more information on NIU softball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.