NIU baseball: Huskies give back to DeKalb

By Steve Shonder

Baseball is hoping to make a more visible difference in DeKalb by reaching out to community members in need.

Beginning in January, head coach Mike Kunigonis set up the DeKalb Pride Project, which has baseball’s players going out and giving back to the community. So far, the project has been successful with baseball launching canned food drives and volunteering at places like Feed’em Soup and the Barb City Manor. Players are also working to set up a military appreciation day.

“It’s just a way for us to positively impact the community, more so than what we do on an everyday basis and what the university does,” Kunigonis said. “I just wanted to put a name to it for us and bring it to another level.”

The Huskies wanted to set up an organization similar to 19 Ways, a community outreach program created in 2008 by Pete Hughes, then-Virginia Tech baseball head coach. The players have really taken to it.

“It’s definitely a huge thing that we do that I love to be a part of,” said sophomore pitcher Andrew Frankenreider. “It’s an awesome feeling to give back and do good stuff for your community.”

The Huskies hosted an ALS Awareness game against the Eastern Michigan Eagles on Sunday. The ALS game raised funds for Team Frate Train, a foundation set up by Pete Frates, former Boston College baseball player and ALS sufferer.

Attendees were invited to purchase ALS wristbands for $2 or order a t-shirt online. The Huskies found some inspiration from the atmosphere surrounding the ALS Awareness game in their play on the field.

Sunday “being ALS awareness day, Pete Frates texted Coach K[unigonis] before the game, and we were out there talking, and he read us the text that he sent earlier,” said redshirt junior Seth Fuller. “It meant a lot that he texted Coach to say something about [what] we were doing out there today. The message was to just play for each other.”

In addition to some of the larger-scale projects that have been done, the players were divided into six smaller groups and tasked with creating three projects of their own. Kunigonis said this was so each player had the opportunity to perform community service in an area that held significance for them.

“I put the ball in their court and allowed them to come up with ideas that maybe hit home to them,” Kunigonis said. “… You don’t know how an individual is impacted by something in their life, so I just kind of gave them an avenue towards coming up with some of those things.”

The players have answered that challenge. Junior catcher Johnny Zubek and his group are setting up a military appreciation day to raise awareness for Honor Flight Chicago, an organization that sends veterans to Washington D.C. for free.

“Coach K[unigonis] has been pushing that since he got here, and he’s made sure that everybody has been involved,” Zubek said. “That’s something that I’ve always done, taking pride and giving back to the community, even growing up and back through high school. I’m glad that Coach K[unignois] has instilled that in our program as well.”

Baseball has big plans for the DeKalb Pride Project in the future, but is holding off on the specifics until the season ends.

“You always try to get better every single year and every single day,” Kunigonis said. “I’ll evaluate at the end of the year. There’s going to be some more projects I want to get involved with in the fall. With the limited amount of time in fitting this in with basically four-and-a-half months, we didn’t get to do a lot of things that I want to do on a greater scale.”