Baseball to top East division

The Northern Kentucky University Baseball team is set to begin its season Feb. 23 and, according to conference coaches, the season looks promising.

The Norse are picked to win the Eastern division of the GLVC, receiving four first-place votes.

Last season the Norse struggled early on with a 2-11 start, but pulled together, finishing the year 27-26 overall and 22-16 in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, falling short of making the conference tournament.

If NKU wins the GLVC, it will have to do so with a pitching staff of only three returning pitchers from last season’s roster, none of which were starters.

“Obviously we lost our entire starting staff and it’s going to be tough,” NKU head coach Todd Asalon said. “Having two juniors drafted in the MLB draft last year is bittersweet because on one hand, you feel a sense of accomplishment, but it hurts because they were going to be important.”

Asalon said he expects Ryan Schimdt, a transfer from Ball State, sophomore Brandon Slusher and freshman Dave Middendorf to step it up on pitching side of the team.

Asalon has won conference titles in 2002, 2004 and 2006, and this year has recruited three Division I transfers, including senior Cameron Betourne from Vanderbilt, who posted a team best 2.56 earned run average last season against the Southeastern Conference.

“Betourne brings experience and toughness because he has pitched in the SEC,” Asalon said. “Nothing scares him.”

Though NKU’s pitching staff may be a work in progress, the offense should not be a problem.

The Norse are returning seven of nine position players, including second-team all-GLVC junior outfielder Jake Shaffer, who batted .347 and had a team-high 12 doubles and 30 runs scored.

While junior designated-hitter Kevin Dusold, first-team GLVC, led the Norse with 34 runs-batted-in and four homeruns.

The GLVC is making two significant changes to its rules this season.

One is the GLVC committee has split the conference into Eastern and Western divisions for the first time since the 1998 season, according to the conference Web site.

The top two teams from each division and two wild-card teams will earn a berth to the 2008 GLVC Tournament at GCS Ballpark in Sauget, Ill., May 8-11.

Asalon isn’t pleased with the split of the divisions, saying that he won’t get to play every team in conference, which prevents them from getting an indication of what to expect come playoff time.

The second adjustment made by the conference can be summed up in one word: Ping! For the first time since 1998 (according to the Sports Information Web site), the league is switching from wooden to aluminum bats.

Asalon said he wanted the change of bats because it will help the hitters and give him one of the best offenses that he has had here.

The aluminum bats will be used in GLVC conference games for the 2008 season.

Looking at the first few games of the schedule, it’s clear the Norse will need to make quick use of their metal bats.

NKU begins the season Feb. 23 at home against non-conference rival Grand Valley State, and follows that with a three-game series at two-time Division II national champion, Tampa University March 1-2.

The Norse will open up GLVC action when it faces Kentucky Wesleyan, March 29-30 at Champion Window Field in Florence, Ky.