Feb. 4, 2002
NKU SEEKS GLVC TITLE IN 2002
Norse return solid lineup, strong pitching staff from 38-21 team
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. - A year ago, Todd Asalon told everyone that he expected his first season as baseball head coach at Northern Kentucky University to be special. He even talked of challenging for the Great Lakes Valley Conference championship.
Despite inheriting an NKU program that had not qualified for the GLVC Tournament in a decade, Asalon said his team would be a factor in the league race. Though NKU was just 18-56-1 against GLVC opponents during the previous three seasons, Asalon thought his Norse could surprise people.
By the time the GLVC Tournament started, everyone around the GLVC agreed Asalons preseason assessment.
Asalon led NKU - which was picked last in the GLVC preseason poll - to a 38-21 record and a berth in the GLVC Tournament. NKU made an impressive showing in the GLVC Tournament by beating nationally ranked University of Indianapolis and University of Wisconsin-Parkside in the first two rounds.
A pair of one-run losses in the double-elimination tournament stopped NKUs bid for the GLVC title, but Asalon expects his 2002 club to be even better.
We had a fine season, but we will not be satisfied until we win the GLVC and earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament, Asalon said. This year we honestly feel this can be a special team. We expect to win 40-plus games and be in the NCAA Division II Top 10 before this season is over.
NKU returns seven starters from last season, and the Norse feature one of the top pitching staffs in the GLVC. That combination figures to produce a number of victories in 2002.
NKU is led by senior catcher Jason Martin, who collected a school-record 81 hits last season. Martin earned third team NCAA Division II All-America honors after hitting .397 with seven home runs and 53 runs batted in.
Jason is an outstanding hitter, and he did a great job behind the plate last year, Asalon said. He deserved the All-America recognition, and we need a big year from him once again.
Martin, a graduate of Oak Hills High School, needs 68 hits to pass Gary Flowerdew (263 career hits) and become NKUs all-time career hits leader. Martin has 196 career hits going into the 2002 season, and he currently ranks No. 6 in Norse history in that category.
He also has a .364 career batting average, which ranks No. 10 in Norse history.
Also returning to the NKU lineup is senior designated hitter/first baseman Steve Walton, a second team All-GLVC selection who batted .356 with eight home runs last season. Senior third baseman Pat Eschan (.250 batting average, 11 doubles), senior first baseman Beau Brake (.316), senior center fielder Justin Rahschulte (.288), junior shortstop Chris Osterkamp (.259) and sophomore second baseman Shaun Erie (.333) will also be keys in 2002.
Those players need to provide leadership and post big numbers for us to reach our goals, Asalon said.
Freshmen Keith Jackson, David Clutter, Brandon Evans, Jim Deller , Matt Dolan and Andy Bright also will contribute in 2002.
A pair of newcomers, freshman Richie Jones and sophomore Lewis Jones, will start in the outfield. Richie Jones, one of the top prep players in the city of Cincinnati last season at Elder High School, has great speed and will start in left field. Lewis Jones, a transfer from Bluefield (W. Va.) State, also has tremendous speed and has won the job in right field.
Richie Jones will be our leadoff hitter, and he has a combination of great speed and power, Asalon said. Lewis Jones has a tremendous arm, and he is the fastest player on our team. Those two are definite impact players.
The pitching staff is loaded with experience and talent. Senior right-hander Lenny Bays posted an 8-2 record with a 3.17 earned run average last season. Bays also recorded 80 strikeouts and was named second team All-GLVC. Senior right-hander Josh Whaley also returns after going 8-4 with a 3.68 ERA.
Sophomore Chris Unkraut (4-0, 4.22 ERA last season as a reliever) will move into the starting rotation this season. Left-hander Brian Lakes, a transfer from Bethel (Tenn.) College, will also be in the rotation.
With the majority of our staff returning, plus some key newcomers, we should have one of the best staffs in the country, Asalon said. Bays and Whaley are proven starters, and I expect Unkraut and Lakes to strengthen our rotation even more.
Asalon must find a closer, but he has plenty of candidates with outstanding arms. Joe Nash, Sean Leonard, Shane Gordon and Brad Baker all will challenge for time on the mound. It figures to be one of the deepest NKU pitching staffs ever.
We have added pitching depth, and our team speed has gone from below average to outstanding, Asalon said. If we can blend our seniors with our new players we will be dangerous. Our positive energy and attitude has carried over from last year, and we are ready for a great season.
NKU will again face a challenging schedule, with road games at national powerhouses University of Tampa and Rollins (Fla.) College. The Norse will also play host to Division I Miami (Ohio) University in the home opener on Feb. 27.