Emily Naegele’s ability was never in doubt. However, when she became more selective and began to dictate terms, she lifted her game to an entirely new level.
Northern Illinois’ senior catcher fashions an epic season, and the potent Huskies have the Mid-American Conference’s best overall record.
“With minimal games left to play and opportunities to be at the plate, I’m trying not to get myself out,” Naegele said. “I know the game is about failing and bouncing back from that. I’m trying to focus on staying positive and making the most of every time I’m at the plate.”
Naegele and first baseman/designated hitter Kayti Grable are the centerpieces of a Northern Illinois offense that leads the MAC in batting, runs and hits. The Huskies (28-13, 9-5 MAC) are a half-game behind Western Michigan in the West Division and already matched their win total from last season, when the program had its first winning record since 2003.
Naegele tops the conference in batting (.410), home runs (16), runs batted in (47), total bases (109) and slugging percentage (.932) after last weekend, each number an immense leap from last season. She is batting 110 points higher and has 10 more home runs than all of last season, while setting the Huskies’ single-season HR record.
She already surpassed her RBI total from 2015 and doubled her slugging percentage. Her on-base percentage (.517) is 159 points higher than last year. She was in the top 11 nationally last week in home runs, RBI and slugging, according to NCAA stats.
“She’s always had the power to do that,” Northern Illinois coach Christina Sutcliffe said. “She just wasn’t always swinging at the best pitches, so she was getting herself out, where now she’s actually making the pitcher get her out.”
“Every time I’m in the box,” Naegle said, “I pretty much talk to myself and say, ‘See the ball. See the ball. See the ball,’ because at this point, my mechanics are what they are. They’re not really going to change, but the only thing I really can control is making sure that I see the right pitch.”
Naegele said that she set some individual statistical goals before the season, but insisted that she couldn’t recall specifics.
“What I can say is that I’ve done a little better than I thought I was going to do,” she said.
Naegele figured that she sees one or two quality pitches per at-bat, if that. In a recent series against Kent State, she blasted three home runs and drove in five runs in the first two games. In the third game, the Golden Flashes walked her four times. She also leads the Huskies with 22 walks.
“I’m OK with that,” she said, “because we have players in our lineup who have hit home runs and have power numbers and are capable of driving in runs, so taking a walk, I take it with a grain of salt because I know that I have girls behind me that can hit me in.”
Take away Naegele’s offensive production and she’d still have an outsized impact. Her experience is invaluable, and she handles a young pitching staff that consists of a freshman who has gotten the bulk of the innings (Alex Frenz) and two sophomores (Tara Thacker and Keegan Hayes).
“She’s definitely a rock behind the plate,” Sutcliffe said. “She gives every one of our pitchers more confidence because they know they can throw any pitch they want and she’ll be able to keep it inside. Her ability to throw runners out is definitely a threat for us.”
The Huskies’ offense, which averages 6.3 runs per game, also provides a cushion for the pitching staff.
“When your pitchers know that they don’t have to throw shutouts every day,” Sutcliffe said, “they can go out on the mound with a lot more confidence and more comfortability and be able to pitch their game. They know they have the offense behind them to make up for any mistake they make.”
As one of the captains, Naegele also helps set the tone for the team. She is competitive and driven in weight training and conditioning, and she carries a 3.899 grade point average as a pre-physical therapy major.
“She’s been a leader since she’s been here,” Sutcliffe said. “She picks and chooses it pretty well. She can be vocal when she needs to, and she can allow others to lead when it’s more in their strength. She can get in your face and she can give you a hug at the same time.”
As a catcher, Naegele absorbs a greater physical toll than position players. She said that she hasn’t altered her routine significantly to try to remain fresh at the end of a long season — extra ice treatments, maybe a little more rest.
“These are the last games I’m going to play in a sport I’ve played since I was little,” she said, “so the soreness and wear and tear really doesn’t matter to me right now, because I only have a few games left to be out there. We’re having an incredible season, and scoring runs and being able to provide for my team and win games makes it so much more fun.”