DEKALB, Ill. – Friday Jan. 24, 2014, the opening day of college baseball practice across the country. Along with the coaches and players, College Baseball Central was there as Northern Illinois University opened the doors to the brand new Kenneth and Ellen Chessick Practice Center, for what would not only be the first baseball practice of the year, but the first baseball practice ever in the pristine facility.
Head Coach Ed Mathey made his anticipated appearance through the side door, as players and assistant coaches gathered in groups chatting amongst themselves and making final preparations.
Mathey, a south Chicago product, sauntered in towards the crowd of players, staff, and media with a Rawlings bat donned upon his shoulder, and after a quick firm handshake told me his intentions for the day, if not the entire year.
“We are going to make use of this facility,” Mathey said. “We are going to take pride in it. Right now it’s just a matter of figuring out the lay of the land, so as to get the best approach for the different drills.”
Practice started with the players circling coach Mathey in the center of the facility as Mathey went over his expectations for the coming season.
“Guys,” Mathey exclaimed. “It all starts with what you want to do.”
It was clear that Mathey wanted to get the message out, and he did so with that confident, yet assuring voice only a coach can have when addressing his players. From the rear of the gathering, star pitcher Eli Anderson dug his way to the center of the circle wearing a camouflage baseball cap with the NIU Huskie dog front and center just above the bill.
“See that hat,” Mathey pointed. “That’s the new cap, but you don’t get to wear that yet. You have to earn it,” as the players looked in envy.
Right away the tone was set. A few more instructions from Mathey and with a dash practice started.
The players were tight but receptive to the drills as they began calisthenics. The buzz in the air was all positive as Mathey directed the players in to fielding drills. A crisp grounder to third followed by a scoop and throw to first. Mathey was hitting strategically placed balls that made the shortstop or third baseman call which of them had the play and then execute it.
“Let’s go,” Mathey yelled. “Get one!”
Every mistake was met with a positive comment as Mathey started piecing together team synergy instantaneously. Even third assistant coach Marvin Sanchez was swarming the field with positive connotations and reinforcing attitude. It was art in motion.
I made my way over to the pitching cages where pitching coach Todd Coryell had his staff positioned, and 6-foot-9 RHP junior Dirk Ormsby was getting in his first round of pitches for the day. Ormsby is a tall long armed guy that evokes thoughts of former MLB great Randy Johnson as his stride covers lots of ground to home plate before the pitch is released.
“It starts with one pitch one day,” Coryell explained. “It starts with winning the MAC West, we were fortunate enough to end up there last year, and win the overall conference. One of the great things here is that all of us kind of coach across the board, whether it’s hitting, pitching or what, we all have a part in it.”
The Huskie pitching staff took opponents by surprise last year with Anderson and two-way threat Alex Klonowski (who plays second base as well), putting the ball in the strike zone all year.
“We have a great group of guys this year,” Klonowski said. “We have a lot of depth and I feel like we have the right team to win the MAC West again. We just want to keep winning get in to the post season and make a regional. It was a great feeling winning the MAC last year; we want to do that again.”
However, the cat is out of the bag this year and teams will be looking to bring the lumber against NIU hurlers.
“Last year was kind of a surprise,” Coryell added. “Teams have the scouting reports now, so it will be interesting to see how they adjust.”
I took a good look at sophomore LHP Jordan Ruckman, who owns a nice three pitch mix including a fastball, changeup, and curveball. Ruckman certainly has a powerful presence on the mound and a very deceptive front arm delivery. After watching Ruckman it is hard not to imagine him having an impact this year on the hill.
As I traversed the practice field it was easy to see and hear the team coming together. The coaches and the more experienced players were all chatting it up, and helping the new guys feel welcome and part of the team. The team was syncing quickly, and after only two hours of drill.
Making my way over to the batting cages was next. Hitting Coach Tom Carcione had his guys taking hacks and things were looking good to say the least.
“The players need to shake off a little rust,” Carcione stated. “I have them in here now trying to get familiar with the new flat seam ball. I like to play small ball so I don’t think the flat seams are going to affect grounders and hits like that. The exit velocity isn’t changing off the bat, but maybe we can see some more homeruns which is great for the game.”
Big Micah McCulloch, a 6-foot-3 240 pound junior was in the cage and the ball was getting crushed. Look for a big year from the IF/C from Rochelle, Ill.
Senior Connor Schomig an IF/OF standing 6-foot-1weighing 180 pounds and Jason Gasser a 6-foot freshman outfielder weighing 195 pounds were getting their cuts in as well and the cage was taking damage. I didn’t get to see sophomore Tommy Hook a 6-foot-2, 175 pound IF out of Lockport, Ill., who hit.298 as a freshman last year, but if his success with runners in scoring position (RISP) continues his impact on this Huskies team could be very valued.
NIU’s first practice showed great promise and was filled with excitement. This year has the promise of victory.