Huskies ready to retake diamond

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Baseball in glove in the lawn at sunset in the evening day with sun ray and lens flare light.

James Krause, Reporter

DeKALB — After the COVID-19 pandemic cut the NIU baseball team’s season short last year, Head Coach Mike Kunigonis said sending the Huskies out to play ball will make it all worth the wait.

“I’m going to have a smile ear-to-ear when I get to see these guys step onto a field to play somebody else,” Kunigonis said. “The last 11 months has given me the chance to reflect on what the game means to me. I haven’t felt the feeling I felt last March since I was 22-years old when I found out I couldn’t play anymore at a high level. Truthfully, I’m really going to enjoy watching these guys play baseball.”

Kunigonis and the Huskies had their wait extended a week after their planned opening series against the University of Memphis was canceled Feb. 18 due to weather. The new season opener is scheduled for Friday against the University of Evansville Aces in Evansville, Indiana.

The weather cancellation in Memphis allowed Kunigonis to be better prepared. Preparation has been the main focus for the offseason, Kunigonis said.

“The focus has really been on making sure we’re prepared for opening day,” Kunigonis said. “From a pitching standpoint, we are talking about making sure their arms are conditioned and ready to go. You build your game conditioning up through the last five weeks just so you come prepared day one.”

The baseball team has had to make adjustments to practices in order to accommodate COVID-19 regulations. The team hasn’t shared a physical dugout since the end of last season, with players using the baseball field itself as a place to spread out their equipment in order to maintain proper social distance.

Kunigonis said small changes helped ensure a somewhat normal offseason of training.

“There’s been a lot more logistic stuff we’ve had to get used to and prepare for,” Kunigonis said. “If we wanted to have as normal of a fall, winter and early spring as we wanted, we needed to put things in place that allowed us to do that.”

The NCAA gave baseball players another year of eligibility after their season was cut short in the spring, meaning redshirt senior catcher Jake Dunham will bring five years of starter experience to the lineup.

Dunham was voted to the preseason All Mid-American Conference Team as a catcher. The Plainfield native led the Huskies in several major batting statistics, naimly RBIs, walks drawn and home runs. Kunigonis said Dunham’s experience makes him an asset to team success.

“[Dunham’s] experience and talent he brings is great,” Kunigonis said. “You don’t get many five-year starters, he’s coming back because of the shortened season last year. That type of experience is tough to find.”

Experience can be found throughout the Huskies pitching staff with four senior pitchers in the bullpen. Senior pitcher Nate Thomas, who’s acted as the team’s closer in the past, led the staff with a 1.42 ERA and 24 strikeouts.

Even in only 17 games, a new standout rose from the outfield. Redshirt junior outfielder Brady Huebbe joined the Huskies from Illinois Valley Community College and had the hot bat of the season with a .342 average to go with 10 RBIs. 

Kunigonis said Huebbe not only adds a consistent bat to the line up, but versatility in the lineup and on defense.

“The thing about Brady is when we get into a pinch, he can play practically any spot we need,” Kunigonis said.

The Huskies season is scheduled to start with a three-game series against the Aces, who enter with a 1-3 record. The series starts at 3 p.m. Friday.