When the Northern Kentucky University Baseball team started out losing eight of its first nine games, Head Coach Todd Asalon wasn’t worried. During that time, the Norse had played three of the top five Division II teams in the country. This included a loss to Tampa University, the No. 1 team in the country, in a competitive 7-5 game. The Norse also lost to the No. 2 team Florida Southern University. In that game, the Norse had a 7-1 lead in the seventh inning but ended up losing 8-7. So the slow start was not really indicative of how competitive the Norse was. Lately, the Norse has been playing well and the key to its strong play has been solid pitching. This included a double-header sweep over Bellarmine University on March 20th, where NKU combined for 18 scoreless innings in back-to-back shutouts. In the last five games the Norse has shut out the competition, thanks to starting pitchers Brian Beltz, Matt Marksbury, Nathan Jones and Josh Lueke.
Lueke, a junior, is a key player to the pitching staff. Lueke says he likes to mix his pitches up. “My strength is my fastball, I don’t have trouble throwing it for strikes. I also use my slider and my changeup to mix things up,” he said.
Lueke pitches about once a week, but does not hit because pitchers don’t hit in college. “I like the idea that the pitchers don’t hit, just because you don’t have to worry about some freakish injury. Coach does give us some incentives, if we throw a shut out we get to take batting practice,” Lueke said. Josh feels his team can win the Great Lakes Valley Conference.
“Lately, we are coming together as a team and pitching a lot better and still have half a season to go to catch Southern Indiana, so I think we will be right there in the end,” he said.
At the plate NKU is hitting its stride, with local product Evan McDole leading the way. Hitting in front of him are Jake Shaffer, a transfer from Winthrop University, and Kevin Dusold. These three comprise the 3-4-5 spots in the lineup and are also the leading run producers on the team.
Asalon, in his seventh season at NKU, said being aggressive is the key to his team. “We have to make things happen and not sit back and wait. We need to be aggressive on the bases and at the plate also,” Asalon said. He cited team pitching and defense as their overall strengths. The Norse have been hot on the base paths, stealing a successful 30 out of 31 bases in conference games.
The Norse played a tough road matchup against Southern Illinois University at Edwardsvile. NKU split the four-game series versus the Cougars at Roy Lee Field.
Pitching looked to be the main component for the Norse, as the starters in Game 1 and 2 pitched strongly, winning 7-0 and 2-1 respectively. Marksbury pitched in Game 1, throwing a complete game shutout, surrendering two hits, walking one and striking out five.
Game 2 proved to be a pitching duel between the Norse and Cougars as the runs were sparse in the matchup. NKU starter Josh Bruns threw seven strong innings, striking out five, walking three and surrendering three hits. Nathan Jones closed out the game for the Norse, notching his first save of the season.
Asalon thinks the tough early schedule will help them late in the year, “We played the top teams in the country early and even though we struggled it’s going to make us a better team during the conference season,” he said.
The top six teams will qualify for the GLVC tournament, May 11-13 at Sauget, Ill. and Asalon doesn’t just want to qualify.
“There’s no doubt we can win this conference still, if we can keep doing the fundamentals well and stay aggressive at the plate and on the bases we will be fine.”
NKU has a young team this year, with 17 freshman and sophomore players, many of them from this region. “We have good baseball in this area and there is a lot to choose from around here in the recruiting process,” Asalon said. There is also good upperclassman leadership with the starting five pitchers having three seniors and two juniors.
“We recruit good student athletes and I have a great coaching staff to work with and we will all work hard together to win the GLVC conference and go beyond there,” coach replied.