NIU’s softball team opens its 2012 campaign this weekend at the Lion Softball Classic hosted by Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La. The Huskies will play a doubleheader Friday, Feb. 10, taking on Southern at 11 a.m. (CT) and Nicholls State at 3 p.m.
The Huskies continue play Saturday with a doubleheader against Tennessee-Martin at 3 p.m. and Troy at 5:30 p.m. before wrapping up play Sunday versus the host Lady Lions at 9 a.m.
NIU head coach Lindsay Chouinard opens her fifth season at NIU with a roster recruited entirely by her and her staff.
“It’s definitely taken a lot off pressure of me from a working standpoint,” Chouinard said. “It is very well understood [now] what the program is about. People always say in their first year or two that they have a lot of opportunities to set the culture. The culture is set now. It’s wonderful to see it come together. Now it’s got to get done on the field.”
The culture Chouinard has created at NIU is one of success.
The Huskies have reached the MAC Tournament in three of her first four years, advancing to the semifinals in 2009 and 2010. NIU’s run in the 2011 tournament came to a disappointing end as the Huskies lost their first two games.
Chouinard said she and the Huskies will take lessons learned from that experience into the 2012 campaign, beginning with instilling a defensive mindset.
“We’ve made it very clear to the kids that playing defense is what it’s about this year,” Chouinard said.
“In order to win a championship, you have to be able to pitch and defend. Last year, we were a great hitting team and missed a chance at the championship game because we couldn’t defend. That’s what we’re going to do this year. We’re going to defend and pitch right. They understand that and they’ve bought into that. Whoever defends is going to be out there.”
Another important aspect to the NIU softball program is versatility. When recruiting, Chouinard looks for student-athletes that can play a variety of positions. It allows her to field the best possible team every game.
“Everybody needs to play multiple positions,” she said. “Honestly, outside of the [pitcher’s] circle, everyone is playing multiple positions. It’s nice to be able to move people around. It helps me keep people in the line-up. At the same time, if somebody isn’t going through the best situation at the moment or is slumping, there’s a way we can make it work where people don’t feel uncomfortable. It’s what this program does.
“Our kids are athletic, they’re smart, and they understand the game. I think playing multiple positions helps them understand the game even better. It’s an interesting dynamic at times, but it’s definitely a helpful way to not just help us win a MAC Championship, but to make them better, stronger players.”
One of the most versatile players on the squad is sophomore Stephanie Tofft. The only Huskie to start all 53 games last season, Tofft had a school record 36-game hitting streak and broke the NIU single season record with 75 hits. Her .512 on-base percentage ranked 33rd in the country and is fourth on the school’s all-time list.
Tofft started 33 games in the outfield, nine at catcher and seven at third base. She also saw time in the pitcher’s circle, making 14 appearances and starting four games. This season, she can add shortstop to that list.
“Steph’s extremely athletic. Everyone’s seen that about her,” Chouinard said. “She’s got incredible range, a great arm, [and is] not afraid to leave her feet. Her potential is limitless. She needs to make the routine play, she needs to make the play right at her and needs to be consistent to play short for us.”
Tofft is one of seven returning starters for the Huskies.
Seniors Carly Norton and Dani Parrish, juniors Jennifer Barnett and Amanda Sheppard and sophomores Tofft, Gianna Cipollone and Nicole Gremillion all started at least 29 games for the Huskies last season. Veterans Ashley Kopp, Shelby Miller and Erika Oswald saw action last year and will be expected to contribute again this season.
The Huskie senior class is particularly special to Chouinard as it is her first recruiting class and she wants to see them go out as champions.
“Carly and Dani have been incredible to this program. I can’t say enough about either of them,” Chouinard said. “They’re the first student-athletes we recruited and they’ll be the first to graduate from the program. I see them both contributing in a big way.
“They’re true ambassadors for NIU softball. We hope that they ultimately end their career with a MAC championship.”
Parrish, a first team All-MAC selection last season, anchors the NIU outfield from her left field spot. She led the team in sacrifice bunts with nine and her 45 hits ranked second.
Norton, who has made 51 starts at catcher during her NIU career, is a 2010 second team All-MAC selection and a 2012 Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award nominee. According to Chouinard, she brings an intangible to the position that will be a huge asset and will aid the staff’s development.
“Carly is especially ready for this because she has a younger sister who’s also playing Division I softball and is the age of these freshmen pitchers,” Chouinard said. “She connects really well with the staff and has their trust. She knows how to run a defense and she’s been great behind the plate. Her leadership qualities are so important.”
Northern Illinois welcomes eight newcomers to the squad for 2012; Kaitlyn and Kristyn Barrett, Megan Dortch, Allyson Hecht, Bryanna Phelan, Jessica Roper, Jessica Sturm and Emily Woller. Chouinard is pleased with the progress the freshmen have made to date.
“There are just great, hard-working kids in that class,” she said. “They’ve definitely stepped it up and followed the lead of the upperclassmen and have helped mold and gel this dynamic we have.”
Of the eight newcomers, three are pitchers, Dortch, Hecht and Sturm. All three bring different styles giving Chouinard versatility in the circle as well. She’s excited about their potential and feels they are going to playa key role in the Huskies’ success in 2012.
“We recruited three freshmen pitchers,” she said. “So we actually have a staff now, which is nice. Megan, Ally and Jess should be able to do great things together.
“The three pitchers are going to be critical. We’ve been working so hard from an offensive and defensive standpoint for their arrival. It’s been part of the plan. We knew they were going to be here. It’s a lot of pressure for freshmen to walk in and succeed. That’s why there are three of them.”
If the Huskies are to win the Mid-American Conference in 2012, Northern Illinois will have to become road warriors. NIU will play its first 27 games on the road and 14 of its 22 conference games away from home.
Chouinard believes the intensive road slate will better prepare the Huskies for conference play.
“We’re in a situation where we’re on the road more,” Chouinard said of the Huskies’ MAC slate.
“By design, in the preseason, we’re also on the road a lot. The girls are going to be prepared to play away from home. In order to be successful, they need to [play on the road], not just in conference, but in the conference tournament. I think being on the road a ton early on should help them.”
The Huskies will be tested in conference play immediately as NIU will face traditional MAC powers Miami and Ball State on the opening weekend of league play.
“We play Ball State and Miami that first weekend of conference play,” she said. “Last year, they were the last weekend for us. Miami and Ball State have been perennial powers in the MAC since I’ve been here. It’s going to be a good challenge right away and hopefully the preseason prepares them for that.”
For more information on NIU softball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.