Northern Illinois Tries To Move On
When spring practice began on Feb. 1, coach Ed Mathey had high hopes for his Northern Illinois team, which set school records for Division I wins (34) and Mid-American Conference wins (16) in 2007. He still does.
While every other Division I team in the nation was spending the three weeks leading up to the Feb. 22 uniform start date preparing for Opening Day, Northern Illinois' baseball activities suffered a jarring, violent interruption on Feb. 14. That's when a lone gunmen opened fire in an NIU lecture hall filled with students, killing five and wounding 16 others before turning the gun on himself. Baseball was put on hold while the community struggled to cope with the tragedy.
"It's been tough. I can't lie," Mathey said. "The whole situation that occurred is tough, and athletically what we like to do and what gives us comfort got shut down for about five days."
For NIU players like sophomore infielder Jordin Hood, the shooting was an unwelcome reality check. Seldom do 18- to 22-year-olds have to absorb such a jolting reminder of their own mortality.
"It's just a scary time," Hood said. "It really just opens people's eyes and makes you realize it can happen anywhere at anytime. There's not much you can do to prevent it.
"A lot of the students have come together. I went to a vigil, and there were a lot of students there. A lot of people had the right idea of supporting the community."
Baseball is part of the healing process. As the aftermath to last year's Virginia Tech shootings showed, the return to normalcy and routine is one of the most difficult but also one of the most important steps toward recovery.
"We're all aware of what occurred, but the thing is our guys are getting together now," Mathey said. "We were able to start practicing as a team again. You can just see there was some energy, there was camaraderie, a sense of purpose that really helped these guys.
"Just the outpouring of support that's come through the baseball community nationally has been exceptional. I guess when things like this happen, it gives you perspective where you're at in the world."
After the Huskies had to cancel their season-opening four-game series at Texas Tech, officials at Arizona State and in the parks and recreation division at Surprise, Ariz., jumped into action trying to alter schedules and work through contractual issues to allow NIU to play games prior to the start of the Coca-Cola Classic, which starts Friday. Hawaii and Portland will be in Surprise for the event, and the Huskies will play games against each on Thursday before traveling to Southern Illinois for a regularly scheduled three-game series.
With the compacted schedule, making up those four lost games would have been difficult otherwise. And playing as close to 56 games as possible will be crucial for NIU to build a resume for an at-large regional bid—and the Huskies do harbor NCAA tournament aspirations.
Northern Illinois returns seven of nine starting position players from a year ago and a number of key veterans on the mound, including senior righthander Trevor Feeney, who led the team in innings (98) and wins (six) as the Friday starter last year. Junior righty Brian Smith was in the mix to be the ace heading into last year before a bone spur in his elbow cost him the entire season. Lefthanders Brandon Copp, a junior, and Matt Jernstad, a senior, give the Huskies two other solid, experienced starting options, and junior righty Andy Deain should slide seamlessly from setup man to closer.
The Huskies will be strong up the middle, with leading hitter Matt Behren (.354 a year ago) back behind the plate and shortstop Bobby Stevens back at shortstop. Stevens is still trying to harness the offensive and defensive talent that made him the No. 3 prospect in the Central Illinois Collegiate League in 2006, as he has not hit above .254 in two seasons for the Huskies.
Hood hit .294/.347/.459 with six homers and 11 stolen bases as a freshman second baseman, and this season he'll return to third base, which he played in high school and considers his natural position. One of the more talented players on the team, he could be in for a breakout sophomore campaign.
"He's been an absolute pleasure to have here—he came in and was happy he chose Northern," Mathey said of Hood. "We thought he would come in and hit, and he sure did. He quietly goes about his work, he's a quiet leader, he doesn't get rattled out there, he's always under control."
Hood did not always have complete control over everything in his life. As a sophomore in high school, he fought—and beat—testicular cancer.
"I think I grew a lot as a person mainly, and also athletically, it made me push myself as much as I could," Hood said.
So using baseball as a release in the wake of off-field hardships is nothing new for Hood. After the shooting at NIU, he was just glad to get back to practice that first time.
"It had a lot of energy," Hood said of the Huskies' return to the field. "I think a lot of guys were ready to get back and get their mind off the events of (Feb. 14) a little bit, get back in the swing of things and see what happens."