Baseball: Unlikely hero Hopfner drives in winning runs for Wildcats


Nathan Richards/Daily Senior Staffer

Joe Hoscheit fouls off a pitch. The sophomore laid down a sacrifice bunt to set up classmate Matt Hopfner’s game-winning hit.

Jesse Kramer, Reporter


Matt Hopfner is not a fan of using the term “sophomore slump” to describe his struggles this season.

“I don’t like the word,” the sophomore outfielder said. “When I bring it up with my dad, he hates it. So I can’t tell him I’m in a slump — ever.”

No matter the phrase, Hopfner’s season has been nothing compared to last year’s. He led Northwestern with a .335 batting average last season, earning a spot on the All-Big Ten Freshman Team. College baseball publication Perfect Game gave him freshman All-America honors.

But this season, the Minnesota native has been one of the Wildcats’ weak points in the batting order, with a .254 average and an on-base percentage that barely eclipses .300.

So when Hopfner singled the tying and go-ahead runs in the bottom of the eighth inning Wednesday against UIC (18-16-1, 13-5 Horizon League), the clutch hit was important for both him and the team.

“It was pretty big. I was overdue,” said Hopfner. “It’s been a struggle this year, but I’ve been working on some things with coach (Paul Stevens) and feeling a lot more confident. Hopefully this is the start of something good.”

Hopfner’s base hit gave NU (13-26, 4-8 Big Ten) a 5-4 lead after it appeared the Cats might squander a great opportunity.

Junior second baseman Antonio Freschet led off the eighth inning with a walk. Junior first baseman Zach Jones followed with an infield single.

Stevens gambled, taking the bat out of sophomore slugger Joe Hoscheit’s hands to move the two runners into scoring position.

After junior Jack Mitchell struck out, the inning rested on Hopfner.

Although Stevens brought in Hopfner as a defensive replacement for the top half of the inning, he had faith in him at the plate. The sophomore responded by lacing one up the middle against reliever Alex Posey.

“If there’s anybody that I believe can sit there and play in really clutch scenarios, it’s Hoppy,” the coach said.

Two batters later, freshman Jack Claeys dropped a blooper into centerfield to score Hopfner, adding an insurance run.

Hopfner received a warm greeting upon returning to the dugout.

“He’s had some moments where he hasn’t really been himself this year, but we’ve always got a lot of confidence in him,” Jones said of his teammate. “Going up there, we definitely believed in him, and he was able to come through.”

Claeys was filling in for senior starter Scott Heelan, whom Stevens said simply needed a day’s rest.

“Scottie Heelan has been like Iron Mike, so it was time for him to get a bit of a breather” Stevens said. “It’s really nice to see Jack do the things he did today, because he hasn’t had much playing time. Scottie Heelan, when you take his bat out of the lineup, you’re always worried. But Claeys filled in pretty well today.”

Claeys finished 2-for-4 with a pair of RBIs.

Cats pitcher Matt Portland got the call in the ninth inning. After surrendering a lead-off walk, the junior retired three batters in a row, including two on strikeouts.

NU is now 2-0 at the freshly renovated Rocky Miller Park after playing 37 consecutive games on the road. The Cats continue an 11-game home stand this weekend against the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Jones has enjoyed plenty of early success on the new field, going 5-for-9 with three RBIs in the two games. The native of nearby Glenview, Illinois is happy to stay put.

“Just knowing we don’t have to get on a bus, we just come here? That’s awesome,” he said.

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Twitter: @Jesse_Kramer