DEKALB, Ill. — On Monday, news broke that Northern Illinois had hired Virginia Tech associate head coach/recruiting coordinator Mike Kunigonis as its new head coach, replacing the departed Ed Mathey, who will return to his previous post as head coach at North Central College.
Under Mathey, the Huskies had enjoyed some modest successes, including winning the MAC West in 2013 and four seasons of 30 or more wins, but they struggled to consistently win games outside of MAC play and they never quite got over the hump and into the postseason. Mathey did a great job of breathing some new life into the program and he leaves as the program’s leader in wins, but now it’s time for the Huskies to take the next step.
Since 2008, Kunigonis has been an assistant at Virginia Tech, first as a volunteer assistant from 2008-2010, then as a full-time assistant from 2010-2013, and then most recently as associate head coach/recruiting coordinator.
Under head coach Pete Hughes, Kunigonis helped nurture a number of quality players, including 2010 third-round pick Austin Wates, 2013 second-round pick Chad Pinder, 2014 third-round pick Mark Zagunis, and big leaguers Jesse Hahn and Ben Rowen. All told, Kunigonis and the Hokies saw 23 players drafted during his tenure.
Over the same span, the Hokies won 30 or more games in five of his seven seasons on staff, with the only exceptions being 2008, his first season on staff, and 2014, when the program was in a rebuilding mode. They also made the postseason twice, in 2010 and 2013, and even hosted a regional in the latter case.
Most importantly, though, Kunigonis knows a little something about building a winning baseball program in a non-traditional college baseball locale. Prior to the Pete Hughes era in Blacksburg, the Hokies had not made the postseason since 2000, and prior to a run of four postseason appearances between 1994 and 2000, it had been since the 1970s since the program had enjoyed a postseason run.
As a recruiting coordinator, he also had to deal with unique challenges at Virginia Tech. While it’s not the most barren state for high school baseball talent, Virginia is no Florida or Georgia. On top of that, they have to fight the perennial national contender Virginia Cavaliers for the high-end talent that does come out of the state. The Hokies could reach down into North Carolina for more talent, but there again, they have to deal with programs like North Carolina and North Carolina State, on top of a litany of solid mid-major programs in the Tar Heel State.
To that end, Kunigonis has done a great job of reaching far and wide to bring players back to Blacksburg. Zagunis came to VT from New Jersey, Hahn is from Connecticut, and currently, the Hokies roster that he recruited features players from 13 different states, including hotbed states Florida, Georgia, California, and Texas.
He’ll face those same types of challenges in DeKalb.
For starters, the Huskies don’t have a ton of baseball history. Since 1991, when the program returned from a seven-year hiatus, NIU has enjoyed just seven winning seasons and they haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 1972.
Kunigonis’ creativity in recruiting will be much-needed as well. Illinois isn’t known as a state that produces a ton of high school baseball talent, and neither are the states that surround it. Reaching into the south for talent is easier said than done as well, as convincing those kids to spend at least their next four winters in the upper Midwest is a tough sell.
Given what he has accomplished, Kunigonis might be just the guy to give that sales pitch. At least the Huskies hope so.