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MAC Baseball Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies

Eli Anderson was a breakout performer for the Huskies in 2013. Can he keep up where he last left off to help NIU win the MAC West for another year?

NIU Athletics

Coming off of a year when the Northern Illinois Huskies were crowned the Mid-American Conference West division champions, head coach Ed Mathey looks to make a repeat. Finishing with a 16-11 record in the MAC in 2013, the Huskies were at 3-seed heading into the MAC tournament, but never really made a run to an NCAA Tournament bid losing both of their playoff games.

Luckily, the Huskies get to keep many of the everyday starters from last year, including all three starting pitchers on the weekends.

The star of this year's team heading into the season is starting pitcher Eli Anderson. A real breakout performer for Northern Illinois as a semi-finalist for the Gregg Olson Award, Anderson threw six complete games (one for a shutout), leading the team with a 2.18 earned run average and held his opponents to a .244 batting average through 115.1 innings pitched. Anderson is also named to College Sports Madness' Preseason All-MAC First Team along with Ball State's Scott Baker and Toledo's Wilkinson. Jordan Ruckman and Alex Klonowski will also be in NIU's rotation for Saturdays and Sundays.

When Klonowski isn't pitching on Sundays, he's out in the field as a second baseman. Leading the team with 31 runs batted in, Klonowski had the third-highest batting average on the team with a .292 clip, an on-base percentage of .328 and slugged a .324 percentage. Receiving First-Team All-MAC accolades as a second baseman, he also had the second most amount of hits on the team (63) and notched in 70 total bases. From the mound, Klonowski tossed a pair of complete games of his own, but his ERA was just a shade under five with a 4-7 record.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle this team will have to face this season is trying to replace Jeff Zimmerman, who was selected by the Seattle Mariners in the 19th round of the 2013 MLB First Year Draft. Zimmerman was played in all 56 games for NIU last year as the team's primary first baseman. Easily the team's best all-around hitter, leading the team in AVG (.321), second in OBP (.380) and first in SLG (.427). He also led the team with 70 hits, 17 doubles, a trio of triples and 93 TB, while second on the team with 30 RBI. He was also very reliable on defense with a .997 fielding percentage. Two names that Mathey said in NIU's baseball podcast that could fill this hole in are Chris DiVarco and Brandon Mallder.

The Huskies begin their season on Feb. 14 with a three-game series against Minnesota at a neutral location in Glendale, Arizona. Starting Feb. 21, the Huskies will participate in the Fuddruckers Lobo Invite in Albuquerque, New Mexico to face off against Missouri State and New Mexico. They will continue their streak of road games against Southern Illinois, #2 Oregon State, Cal Poly, Bradley and University of Illinois at Chicago before their first home series against in-conference foe Buffalo starting on March 21.