EVANSTON -- Northwestern's baseball program hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 1957. That wait won't end until 2017 at the earliest.
After suffering a four-game sweep at the hands of the California Golden Bears this past weekend — in which the Wildcats were outscored 59-5 — which concluded the home portion of the team's schedule, Northwestern took two of three from Rutgers in Piscataway to finish 15-39, the most losses in a single season in school history.
When they take the field next season, the Wildcats will be without multiple key contributors who played a big role in the wins this team was able to get in 2016. Reed Mason, Zach Jones and Jake Stolley will graduate this June, leaving the Wildcats without their best starter, top first baseman and a reliable lefty reliever. RJ Watters, Antonio Freschet and Evan Schreiber will also complete their time in Evanston.
"Senior weekend is always tough," Spencer Allen said after a 15-0 loss to Cal on May 16. "You know, it's their last time to strap it on here at Rocky and Berenice Miller Park. But it's good motivation moving forward."
After the game, in which Jones led the Wildcats with a pair of singles in an otherwise dreary affair, Allen was appreciative of his seniors, even though they were brought to Evanston by Paul Stevens, Northwestern's previous coach. While the Wildcats have only posted losing records for much of this century and just wrapped up quite the possibly the worst series in program history, there are reasons for optimism.
"All of them, in their own ways, have really contributed," Allen said. "We talked about it in the beginning [of the season]. You can work hard and do all the right things, but we may still be 13 and whatever we are right now... Hopefully when we get this thing rolling and turned around, they can come back and now they had a part in it."
With his college career winding down, Stolley was emotional after Monday's game. He struggled to put into words how he felt about just finishing up his final collegiate home game in a season in which Northwestern tied a school record for losses.
"I'm a little speechless, I don't know what to tell you," Stolley said. "I don't want to think about it too much right now because it's a little depressing. But, at the same time, I've had a good career here and I've met a lot of really great guys. That's just what I can look back on and enjoy. It is a little sad to end the career here."
As one of six seniors on a roster filled with underclassmen, many of whom showed a lot of promise this season, Stolley was pushed into a leadership role with the Wildcats in 2016. "I enjoyed it, helping the younger guys learn a little bit. I didn't put too much pressure on myself but tried to lead by example and to help them learn from the failures and bright spots we've had."
Jones was more stoic following the series finale as he embraced the end of his time playing college baseball. Like Stolley, Jones said, it won't be the wins or losses he remembers when he looks back on his career, it'll be the relationships he made and memories he had on the field.
"I've played with a lot of great teammates, so that'll be with me forever," Jones said. "It's sad knowing my time playing baseball as a Wildcat is almost over, but it is what it is. It hasn't even really hit me yet."
Jones did speak to the room this team has to grow, considering its extreme youth and the promise younger players have exhibited in a season marred by a lot of close losses: "They got a lot of guys I think are going to be special players one day. I'm excited for the future and for what these guys are going to do."
For Northwestern baseball and its graduating seniors, the darkest campaign, win-loss wise, in program memory is over. With a new stadium, new coach and several very talented young players, though, the Wildcats are hopeful this season represented a low point not to be challenged for a long time.