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How Northwestern baseball can recover from its transfer exodus

The transfer portal has been an obstacle to the Wildcats’ potential success.

Ryan Kuttler/Northwestern Athletics

When Alex Calarco announced he was transferring to Maryland, it was deja vu all over again. Flashing back to a year prior, his older brother Anthony decided to take his talents to Ole Miss as a graduate student.

The truth of the matter is that Northwestern has never been very good at baseball, and a school outside of Chicago will likely never be comparable to one in the SEC or the ACC. But, the problem facing Northwestern baseball isn’t one about huge success; right now, it isn’t even about winning the Big Ten. It’s about how the program can be salvaged to at least be competitive — about giving the players who do find success a reason not to leave.

The transfer portal hasn’t been very kind to building a future for the ‘Cats. In addition to Anthony Calarco’s departure at the end of the 2022 season, Ethan O’Donnell, Sean Sullivan, Jay Beshears and Patrick Herrera also left. Calarco was the starting first baseman for Ole Miss and batted .374; O’Donnell spent his junior year at Virginia, the No. 6 team in the country, and batted .354 as a starting center fielder. Sullivan posted a 1.83 ERA as a sophomore for No. 3 Wake Forest and was named a second-team All-American; Beshears started as a second baseman at Duke and batted .333; and Herrera headed to No. 17 Kentucky for his sophomore year.

Their absences were clearly felt, as the Wildcats went just 10-40 and started the season on a 12-game losing streak. Far from ideal. Now NU finds itself in a deeper hole.

The team's two biggest offensive assets, Stephen Hrustich and Calarco, are leaving for other Big Ten foes in Michigan and Maryland, respectively. Hrustich has been a key member of the ‘Cats over his tenure, with the captain leading in RBIs, batting average, OPS and slugging percentage in his senior season.

Pitchers Sam Garewal and David Utagawa are also in the transfer portal. Garewal was a bright spot for the Wildcats in his first year, posting the best ERA out of the four pitchers who went over 40 innings. Utagawa had the most pitching appearances on the team and struck out four times as many batters as he walked. To keep these young pitchers would have been extremely valuable to trying to compile a better season. Ryan Keenan, Luke Tanner, Coby Moe, Vince Bianchina and Grant Comstock have also entered the portal.

So, where does Northwestern go from here?

Creating a program that can win and retain players starts with coaching. In the eight years following coach Paul Stevens’ retirement, the Wildcats have had three different coaches and have made it to the Big Ten Tournament just once. The hiring of Jim Foster was supposed to add the experience of someone who knew how to win, having led Army to four conference titles.

Although Foster has just taken the reigns for one year, it wasn’t promising that when the Wildcats were 0-6 to start the year, three of his coaches resigned. It’s absolutely crucial that Foster compiles an experienced group of coaches that players want to play for and who will be here for the long term.

Another thing about coaching: the approach wasn’t working. Yes, there were inconsistent lineups and a lack of pitching depth, evidenced by starters only going a few innings, but small ball just was not the answer for this team. In the conference, Northwestern was last in RBIs, second-to-last in walks and had both the fewest stolen bases and attempts, going 24-for-41.

While some of the Wildcats’ biggest assets are leaving Evanston, Foster retains a few incoming sophomores and juniors who can develop into strong players. Bennett Markinson didn’t find much consistent playing time his first two seasons, but toward the end of his sophomore season, he was a regular starter and will likely take over the catcher position from Calarco. Markinson’s .273 batting average is also the best of the returning players.

Owen McElfatrick, Michael Elko and Trent Liolios also saw a decent amount of game time. Elko and Liolios only had 42 and 85 at bats, respectively, but only heading into their sophomore years, it’ll be interesting how they shape up against a more regular schedule. McElfatrick especially could have a strong season. He had 158 at bats as a freshman, and although he batted below .200, he showed glimmers of promise with eight multi-hit games.

Plain and simple, there aren’t very high expectations for Northwestern baseball. That being said, the ‘Cats need to just find ways to improve each season. Becoming a contender may not be immediate, but it is a possibility. The first step: give players a reason to stay and to believe in the longevity of the program.