Baseball players learn lessons despite canceled season

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Jan Salmon | Southeast Arrow

Matt Boecker, Assistant Sports Editor

DeKALB — Despite the negativity surrounding the NIU baseball team’s season being canceled, the players learned a lesson that will help them down the road.

When the NCAA officially announced spring athletes would receive an extra year of eligibility, the baseball team wasn’t shocked, but still felt relieved.

“It’s a huge weight off my shoulders because if you think about it, for all of us, we’ve been playing baseball since we were little kids,” senior catcher Jake Dunham said. “Just the pit in your stomach when you realize it’s over, especially when you didn’t plan on it being over, is just unbelievable.”

Head Coach Mike Kunigonis believes this ordeal may finally instill a lesson he tirelessly preaches to his team: appreciate the opportunities you’re given.

Kunigonis said when he was 18, his coach told him to appreciate baseball because the sport decides when it’s done with you, not the other way around. Now, Kunigonis tells his players to appreciate things in baseball and life. The season abruptly ending may have finally gotten that message across to the team

“In the four years these seniors have been listening to me say that, it’s all been BS — until we got off that bus and I told those guys the season was over,” Kunigonis said. “The thing I hope they take away from this year going into next year is not taking baseball for granted. Not taking being on the bus with your teammates for granted. Not taking that 6 a.m. lift for granted. Because one day, the rug’s going to get pulled out from underneath you, and you’d probably give almost anything to have that time back in your life.”

That message seems to have clicked for Dunham and senior first baseman Jordan Larson. Both said the biggest lesson they’ve learned from this situation is to stop taking things for granted. Larson also said he plans to stop being so hard on himself next season.

“Whatever my last baseball moment or memory is, I want it to be positive and happy,” Larson said. “So definitely not be as hard on myself and enjoy it because you never know when it’s going to be done.”

Kunigonis is also looking forward to getting back to work next season because he feels confident in his team’s potential.

“We knew how good we were this year and I know we went on a little bit of a skid there, but we were starting to roll a little bit,” Kunigonis said. “Everything was going to start coming together and to have this same group next year with some [first-year players] sprinkled in there, it’s definitely exciting for us.”

It was especially important for the upperclassmen on the team to get the opportunity to play next season because they were the first class Kunigonis recruited. Kunigonis became NIU’s head coach in 2015, and Dunham said he’s challenged them to be great at everything they do, and to turn NIU baseball into a winning program.

“For us being here these last five years and these seniors being with us for those four years, they know what’s expected of them every single day,” Kunigonis said. “Whether it’s practice, in the classroom, community service; they’ve lived the life for four years. I’ve challenged them to be better students, better men, better athletes, better sons and brothers. Just challenged them to be better at everything they do in life.”

Larson said he hopes to return next year, as long as things can be worked out financially. He said he’d understand if things don’t work out given how complicated the situation is.

“I guess the only thing that would possibly hinder me not going would be if for some reason [NIU Athletics] can’t come up with the money and we have to somehow figure out how to come up with all of it myself, then that would be the only way I’d possibly not be coming back,” Larson said. “Other than that, I’m all in.”

Dunham’s decision to return rests solely on the potential of playing professional baseball. It’s been a lifelong dream for him to play pro-ball, so if that opportunity presents itself he’ll pursue that. If it doesn’t, he’ll be back for one last season.