Created:Friday, April 2, 2010 11:38 p.m.CDT
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WHAT IT'S LIKE TO... : Play northern baseball

By JOHN SAHLY - jsahly@daily-chronicle.com
Northern Illinois pitchers try and keep warm during a cool day in DeKalb. (Rob Winner – rwinner@daily-chronicle.com)

Andy Deain always looks forward to the first movie.

The Northern Illinois senior pitcher never gets to pick the film at the start of a long bus trip. Neither do any of his teammates. And they spend a lot of time traveling the numerous long hours that northern teams like NIU must to play a game in the first month of the season in warmer southern climates.

The first film pick always belongs to the coach, Ed Mathey.

"To be honest with you, there's a little generation gap," Deain said. "He's putting on movies that some of these kids have never seen before. That's our entertainment. We look forward to the first movie because we know it's going to be terrible."

And while a good number of people know and enjoy Mathey's movie tastes, those selections appear to be lost on the current college generation.

"One of them is called "The Warriors." I don't know what that's about. I'm pretty sure it's from the '80s," Deain said. "One of his favorite actors is Chevy Chase. He puts on a lot of Chevy Chase movies like "Vacation" and "Fletch.' "

It's not easy being a college baseball team from the north.

A step behind

Before NIU even gets to a place like Arizona State, Austin Peay, Cal-State Bakersfield or Cal Poly, the Huskies already are at a disadvantage.

Because of the often icy, snowy and cold conditions that define December and February in DeKalb, the team is forced to practice indoors at the rec center, though that term team should be used lightly. The lack of space only allows for position groups to work together. A 4-5 hour practice for the coaches is one 90-minute shift each for the infielders, outfielders and pitchers.

"Our compliance people love us," Mathey joked. "We'll never hit that (NCAA) limit of (weekly practice) hours in the winter. We just can't."

They hit and pitch in cages, ground balls aren't true because the rock-hard ground serves as a launching pad for balls and judging any flight or carry on a ball isn't a problem since the small space doesn't allow for much, or any, of that.

"Talk to any golf coach and they'll say the way the ball carries once it gets past 100 feet tells you a lot about your swing," Mathey said. "We're just not getting enough feedback on our guys to say, 'Hey, you're hitting it the right way or you're hitting it the wrong way.' "

Mathey isn't complaining about it. That's just the reality of life for northern teams.

Then when NIU heads south and west to play, where it spent its first 18 games, reactionary things go haywire. Infielders might take an extra step when they go to throw the ball, Mathey said. Or they get rushed because a runner is coming down the line a little quicker than they thought.

The worst part, though, is when NIU gets back from a trip and can't get everything out of it or make all adjustments it needs to because of the weather and indoor practices.

"Baseball has been a game of adjustments for as long as I can remember and it's hard to make adjustments when you're not out on the field doing it," Mathey said. "I think the emotional nature for the guys, you're out playing games and then you're back in the gym. We try and make the best of everything available to us, but we've got condensed space."

Until NIU added a road game at Iowa this week, the Huskies had as many road games – 35 – on their schedule as Arizona State had home games. Now NIU has one more. Arizona State only has 21 road games on it schedule. The Huskies play a grand total of four home games before mid-April.

"They've got a little advantage over us because they've seen live pitching and all the little things that you don't really look at," outfielder Jordin Hood said.

The cost

From an emotional and financial standpoint, northern college baseball teams suffer.

The time spent away from family and friends wears on the team. Mathey said from Feb. 19 through last weekend, he leaves on Thursdays and doesn't get home until Sundays at midnight. With three children of his own, it's not easy to carry a schedule like that.

"It's difficult. As I get a little bit older and my kids get a little bit older, it gets even more difficult," he said. "You miss out on so much. It's the nature of the job, we understand that. Fortunately for me, I've learned how to text, so my two older kids talk to me more that way than they do on the phone."

And even the 20-year-olds miss sleeping in their own beds with all of the travel.

"It's a tough thing to do but it makes coming home that much better," Hood said.

It's also not cheap to travel so often.

Mathey estimated airfare alone for the schedule four-game trip to No. 1 Arizona State was $9,000-10,000.

"You're trying to get everyone on the same flight," Mathey said. "We don't go charter. We go commercial."

The entire trip itself Mathey said cost about $18,000. The next weekend this season was a bus trip to Austin Peay, which cost about $7,000 total. The team's 10-day, nine-game trip to California cost about $22,000-23,000.

But with weather being such a huge factor on the non-conference schedule, NIU and northern teams are left with little choice other than to take these trips.

"The hard part is you want to get games in because you want to get ready for your conference season," Mathey said. "You generally catch better weather the further south and the further west you go."

Not all bad

Hood tries to look at some of the positives from the long hours spent away from campus, like when the Huskies made a trip to Bakersfield, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbra, Calif., this season.

"You get to see all kinds of different areas," Hood said. "That was the first time I've been out to California and that was nice. Seeing different parts of the country is great and it brings your team together."

"I think it's good for our team," Deain said. "Traveling for 20 games brings us together as a team. We're not going our separate ways on the road."

The Huskies get to play some of the top competition in the country. Arizona State is one of the favorites to win the College World Series and Mathey said each one of the ASU starting pitchers they faced has major league potential.

And it beats the alternative of indoor practices for four straight months.

"There are a lot of adjustments you have to make during a season," Mathey said. "The best way to make adjustments to get out and play because you're getting the feedback the kids need and the feedback from the opponents."

Will the NIU football team play for the MAC title this year?
Yes
No
Too soon to tell