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2015 MAC baseball preview: Northern Illinois Huskies

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A new man at the helm brings new optimism to a struggling NIU club

New NIU baseball coach Mike Kunigonis
New NIU baseball coach Mike Kunigonis
Scott Walstrom; NIU Media Services

First-year Northern Illinois Huskies head baseball coach Mike Kunigonis had his heart set on DeKalb for a while.

"I wanted this job pretty bad from the get go," Kunigonis said.  "I believe that this place has an opportunity to really be special."

After seven seasons in various assistant roles with Virginia Tech, Kunigonis begins his first head coaching job Friday when the Huskies take on South Dakota State in the Governors Challenge in Clarksville, Tennessee.  Kunigonis takes over for Ed Mathey, who resigned last winter for a position at North Central College.  And with just a month at the coach's desk, even he's not quite sure what his club will look like at the beginning.  But he certainly knows what he'd like to see.

"I want our guys to play hard every single day," he told me.  "I want to compete every single day.  I want to show up to the ballpark expecting to win every single day."

For that, he'll turn to a glut of veterans that carry over from last year's 17-36-1 club, including fifteen juniors.  Two of those, Brian Sisler and Justin Fletcher, lead the team in hitting and slugging percentage last season, and will anchor an NIU lineup that will try to rebound from last year's struggles.  The Huskies sat at the bottom of the MAC in team batting average (.221), on-base percentage (.309), and runs scored (190) in 2014.

The rotation will be headlined by senior Ben Neumann, who was 4-0 with a 1.86 ERA out of the bullpen in 2014.  Joe Ceja comes to DeKalb from the University of Louisville via Heartland Community College (Normal, IL), and will be turned to to give the NIU rotation a one-two punch.  And look for sophomore Andrew Frankenreider out of the bullpen, whom Kunigonis said has been "absolutely lights out" in workouts.

With the goings-on in DeKalb over the last few years, the long-term goals always seem to be on the front burner, and that's no different from coach Kunigonis' perspective.  Kunigonis was in charge of recruiting in the Midwest while with the Hokies, and has spent countless hours in Chicago.  Expect to see more of him in Chicagoland in the coming years.

"We are going to hammer the Chicagoland area," he said. "I really want to get in here and be aggressive.  I want to own this area."  And the presence of the Big Ten and ACC programs within a day's drive doesn't scare him, pointing to the sustained success of the Huskies' football program.  "It's not by accident," said Kunigonis.

This aligns with the overall desires of the NIU athletic department and athletic director Sean Frazier, who has made large strides since taking the job in 2013.

"He (Frazier) reminds me a lot of my former boss (ex-Virginia Tech baseball coach) Pete Hughes," Kunigonis mentioned.  "The second you sit down with Pete Hughes, you know who Pete Hughes is and you know he's a winner, and you know he's going to get things done.  And I got the exact same feeling when I sat down with Sean."

"The second I sat down with him, my interest in this job went from ‘I really wanted it, really bad' to that's the only thing I could think about."

The road will be tricky right from the start, because the schedule is nothing but road games for the first half of the season.  NIU plays their first 24 games away from Ralph McKinzie Field, a daunting challenge... or so you would think.  More RPI points are awarded to teams who pick up road victories, and living out of a suitcase "is a positive" for this club.

"I don't want to have to win the MAC to be in the national tournament," the coach declared.  "My ultimate goal for this program is that every single year, when the committee gets together, Northern Illinois is in the conversation."

The conversation starts Friday.