Beginning of Big Ten season a big hit for Wildcats

The Northwestern baseball team begins its Big Ten campaign today at 2 p.m. against Illinois, and according to the players, it’s about time.

“I think all of us have been looking forward to this since the last game of last season,” sophomore pitcher Zach Schara said. “To us, preconference games are just stepping stones, and things are looking up. Those are games we needed to play to help get things straight before Big Tens.”

The Wildcats have handled those stepping stones well, winning 13 games overall and showing flashes of brilliance by going 8-1 and winning the Homestead Challenge over Spring Break in Florida.

NU (13-7) will jump into its conference schedule, facing Illinois (15-7, 3-1 Big Ten) four times over the weekend. The Cats will have their work cut out for them one season after finishing 10-18 in the Big Ten. Coach Paul Stevens said the team’s attitude will be the key to its success in a tough conference.

“Their belief in themselves, that they as a team can accomplish a tremendous amount, that’s the biggest thing,” Stevens said. “They believe that there is strength in numbers. They believe in each other. There are not four or five guys on this team who jump out at you, there are a lot of guys that have contributed.”

The pitching staff, however, has been pacing the team with strong performances. Leading the way have been Schara (3-1, 2.52 ERA) and fellow starter Gabe Ribas (4-1, 2.43 ERA). Schara will start Friday and Stevens said Ribas will likely start one of Saturday’s games, with junior J.J. Standring most likely to start the other. Junior Michael Nall or senior Dan Padgett probably will start the fourth game.

“I’m just taking this as another game,” Schara said. “If I look at it as any more, I might get thrown off. I’m not going to change anything. Throw strikes, get guys off balance, get in the batters’ heads right away — that’s the plan.”

Although Schara is keeping his cool, beating Illinois will be a challenge. The Illini finished third in the conference last season and return veteran leaders at the plate and on the mound.

“Coach says they run a lot so we’ve been working on our bunt defense,” freshman Eric Roeder said. “We’re going to have to play solid and hit the cutoff men because they’re going to be aggressive.”

If NU is going to beat Illinois, its hitters will have to keep up with the pitchers. The Cats pounded out 17 hits Wednesday against Lewis but scored only four runs in a 6-4 extra-inning loss.

Stevens said neither he nor the team is worried about the disappointing finish.

“We’re never worried about yesterday, we’re just worried about what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Stevens said. “We reflect on what we could have done and what we should have done, but it’s over and done with. We’ve been hitting the ball well, we just need to put together a few more timely hits.”

Ribas said the players’ trust in each other will help the team move on and improve over the course of the year. He said the team has shown a great deal of effort, and that it is prepared for the rigors of the Big Ten season.

“We come out every day and players one through 25 have been out here doing whatever it takes to get better,” Ribas said. “When we don’t have practice, pitchers have been running, guys have been coming into hit. Morale is high and we’re extremely excited.”

Check for updates from this weekend’s games.