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Northwestern baseball season preview: Wildcats look to improve in Spencer Allen’s second year

The Wildcats were bad in 2016, but with a lot of returners, that could change.

They have the new field, the new locker room, the new recruits and even new jerseys and helmets. Now all that’s left for Northwestern baseball is a new culture, one in which winning is the rule, not the exception.

That’s going to be the main issue for Spencer Allen in his second year at the helm of the Wildcats. After winning its first two games in 2016, Northwestern won just 13 of 52 games the rest of the way, resulting in the team’s third straight year of sub-20 wins.

Such records were common during the 28-year tenure of previous coach Paul Stevens, whose name adorns the renovated plaza of Rocky and Berenice Miller Park. Without much to offer players in terms of facilities, Stevens made do with what he could in Evanston, but Allen wasn’t hired to just “get by.”

He was plucked from Illinois where, in his one season as hitting coach, the Fighting Illini happened to win a program-record 50 games with a 27-game winning streak thrown in for good measure. Coinciding with a major financial investment in the program from Northwestern administration, Allen’s hiring showed that baseball was going to be an emphasis of the revitalized athletic department.

It takes time to build a program from the ground up, but Allen will be given as much time as he needs.

His second season starts today in Tempe, Ariz., as the Wildcats open up with a doubleheader against the Arizona State Sun Devils. Inclement weather pushed Saturday and Sunday’s games up a day, setting up the double-dip. Game 1 will begin at 3:00 pm CST and, tentatively, first pitch for Game 2 is set for 7:30 pm CST. Both games can be heard on WNUR Sports.

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This past Tuesday, InsideNU spoke with Allen about his outlook for the season, the team’s expected positional alignment and rotation for the Arizona State series, the burgeoning role of video in college baseball and Wildcats in the MLB. Here’s what he had to say plus some other notes:

  • On his expectations for the year: “I think the biggest challenge for us is to handle the excitement and control our emotions…We’ve got experienced hitters, guys with a lot of at-bats. We also have some arms with really good stuff so if we can attack the zone and not give away free bases, I like our chances…We’ve been outside more than a lot of teams in the past. We’ve scrimmaged outside three or four times, so our guys are ready.”
  • On some position changes involving true freshmen: “We’re going to slide Willie Bourbon over to first base. We have a freshman, Alex Erro, from Miami who’s going to start at second base. Charlie Maxwell is another freshman, a lefthanded bat, who is going to be in the middle of the lineup early on…Nick Paciorek is going to hit down in the order and be our catcher, so there’ll be three freshman in our starting lineup.” Allen said Bourbon doesn’t have experience at first but the move makes the infield more athletic. Jack Dunn and Connor Lind will stay at shortstop and third base, respectively.
  • Paciorek will be the Game 1 starter behind the plate but he, Jack Claeys and Mat Jones will be a part of a platoon.
  • The main outfield contributors are all returners. Matt Hopfner and Joe Hoscheit will start most games with Ben Dickey and Jake Schieber also playing big roles.
  • On the starting rotation, Joe Schindler will start Game 1 with freshman Hank Christie slated for Game 2 and Matt Gannon for Saturday’s series finale. Allen: “Five freshman pitchers will get chances...Locking down games late was one thing we did not do a good job of last year. We feel like we have more options out of the bullpen this year, and more guys with strikeout pitches.” He mentioned Pete Hofman and former infielder J.R. Reimer as guys to watch as well.
  • On the Wildcats using more video this season: “Starting Monday, we’re going to have a video system in [Rocky and Berenice Miller Park].” He said it won’t be as in-depth as PitchFX (a popular pitch-tracking service) or other MLB systems because of all the different variables in college that aren’t present in the pro game. Allen also mentioned his hitters did some video analysis of the Sun Devils’ pitching staff for preparation.
  • On former Wildcats and current pro players J.A. Happ, Jake Goebbert, George Kontos and Bo Schultz being involved with the program: “They’re proud of the program, they see the direction. We need to start winning more ballgames, but they see the vision. A lot of them had the opportunity to come back for our alumni weekend in the fall and they were jealous [of the improved facilities] but are definitely supportive.”

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Northwestern also has some new equipment/uniform changes for the season. Like some MLB teams (such as the Cubs), the Wildcats’ helmets will feature a raised “N” logo — photo courtesy of the program’s Instagram account. On the road, they’ll wear black, full-button uniforms with “Wildcats” in white.

Also, per assistant coach Dusty Napoleon’s Instagram, new catchers’ equipment:

Custom catchers gear for the season @nucatsbaseball @underarmour

A post shared by Dusty Napoleon (@dnaps03) on

Northwestern won’t contend for a Big Ten title this season, but taking strides forward is crucial for continuing to change the culture of Wildcats baseball.