MAC West champions!
The Northern Illinois baseball team (22-32, 16-11 MAC) clinched its first ever Mid-American Conference West division championship Saturday afternoon in 10 innings at Ball Diamond as the Huskies defeated Ball State (28-23, 15-12 MAC) on Connor Schomig’s (Darien/Hinsdale South) three-run double, 6-4.
NIU now travels to the MAC Tournament in Avon, Ohio, which is scheduled from Wednesday, May 22, through Saturday, May 25, at All Pro Freight Stadium. It is the Huskies’ highest-ever seeding in the MAC Tournament.
“Coming back from the season we had last year, we kind of reset things and battled all year,” said head coach Ed Mathey. “Our seniors did a great job of leading this team, and I could not be happier with them, because this is something they’ll have for the rest of their lives.”
NIU set the tone in the first inning when Tommy Hook (Lockport/Lockport Township) earned a walk with one man down. A single by Alex Klonowski (Kearney, Mo./Kearney) and a walk by Jeff Zimmerman (Tinley Park/Andrew) would load the bases for Micah McCulloch (Rochelle/Rochelle Township), who singled to left field to put the Huskies on top in the frame.
The Huskies separated themselves from the Cardinals in the fourth as Connor Duckhorn (Darien/Cowley County CC) hit a leadoff single up the middle and Nate Ruzich (Joliet/South Suburban College) doubled to score the senior from first. Brian Sisler (DeKalb/DeKalb) followed up with a single to advance the runner and a groundout by Brandon Mallder (Bridgeview/St. Laurence) plated Ruzich to put NIU up, 3-0.
However, Ball State responded in the bottom half of the frame as Sean Godfrey secured an infield single to lead the inning. Cody Campbell would follow up in the next at-bat with a home run over the left field fence to put the Cardinals within one run, 3-2.
Danger continued to loom in the inning as BSU had only one out with runners on first and third but superior Huskie defense came through in the clutch to end the threat. Cardinal Sam Tidabeck attempted a sacrifice bunt down the first base line, but Zimmerman quickly scooped the ball into his glove and flipped the ball from his mitt to get Billy Wellman out at the plate. In poor judgment, Tidabeck did not finish running to first base and was thrown out by Klonowski as Zimmerman laid the tag on the runner to end the inning on a 3-2-1-3 double play.
Jamison Wells (Combined Locks, Wis./Kimberly) also prevented a run from scoring, as he threw out a runner going home from second on a single, throwing a rope to Ruzich, who blocked the plate and quickly made the tag to save another run.
Ball State tied it up in the bottom of the seventh inning as Elbert DeVarie led the stanza with a double, and after a series of great defensive plays by Northern Illinois to put it one out away from ending the threat, Godfrey doubled down the right field line to tie the game, 3-3.
NIU stranded one runner on base in the ninth inning and stellar defense carried it through the bottom of the ninth to send it to extra innings.
The Huskies did not hesitate in extra innings as Zimmerman started things off with a single through the middle for his third hit of the day. McCulloch followed with another single for NIU and Duckhorn pushed the runners forward with a sacrifice bunt. Ruzich was intentionally walked to load the bases and force a play at home with Sisler at the plate. Ball State took Sisler’s fielder’s choice to get the force out at home but leave the sacks juiced with two outs.
Schomig, in his first at-bat of the game after entering as a substitute in the bottom of the ninth, ripped a double down the left field to put Northern Illinois up by three at the middle of the 10th, 6-3. Though the Cardinals put together two hits, including an RBI single by Campbell, Ball State was unable to overcome the deficit and could not solve Anthony Andres (Western Springs/St. Rita), who pitched 2.2 innings to win earn his fourth win of the season for the division championship.
Relief pitcher Kevin Sweeney (Chicago/Fenwick) stepped onto the mound for Klonowski in the sixth inning, tossing 2.0 innings with three hits surrendered, one earned run with a strike out and no walks. Klonowski pitched 5.1 innings in the start, giving up six hits, two runs, two walks and one strikeout.
Zimmerman had a perfect day at the plate, going 3-for-3 with two walks, while Schomig led all batters in the game in runs batted in at three.
NIU was picked to finish last in the division this year after finishing 2012 with a 15-40 overall record and a 7-20 clip in Mid-American Conference games.
The Huskies will begin the MAC Tournament Wednesday May 22 in Avon, Ohio when it plays No. 6 seed Bowling Green. Times are to be announced. NIU did not play the Falcons during the regular season.
For more information on NIU baseball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.