DeKALB – When Northern Illinois baseball coach Ed Mathey thinks back to the beginning of his tenure, some late nights come to mind.
Mathey, about to begin his 12th season as the Huskies’ skipper, remembers evenings at the NIU Campus Recreation Center during the cold weeks of practice his first two seasons, the winters of 2003 and 2004. Mathey’s team would start practice at 10:30 at night, and didn’t get done until around 2 a.m.
“You try to get 30 guys in, 35 guys into a practice, you need space,” Mathey said. “You need nobody around because baseballs can hurt people.”
For Mathey and the rest of his players, things are looking a heck of a lot better these days. This week, Mathey spoke to the Daily Chronicle inside the spacious, brand-new Chessick Practice Center.
The building was built with football in mind, but NIU’s baseball program is taking full advantage of it as well. At the start of Mathey’s tenure, his players were either using the campus rec center or Chick Evans Fieldhouse. The past few years the Huskies also have been able to use the DeKalb Recreation Center on Fourth Street.
Now, with mounds and mounds of snow on the ground and bone-chilling temperatures outside, the Huskies have been able to hold practices at the Chessick in preparation for the 2014 season, which begins this weekend, when the defending Mid-American Conference West Division champs face Minnesota in a three-game neutral-site series at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz. – the spring training home of the White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers.
NIU is able to lay out an infield and duplicate game situations in a space where the size is closer to a normal playing field. Mathey compared old practice situations to a football team practicing on a 60-yard field or a basketball team preparing on a half court.
Outfielders are able to take fly balls inside the building, which is 65 feet tall in the center and 45 feet on the sidelines. Mathey said that works fine even with the building’s white ceiling.
“That’s OK for me. It forces the outfielders to concentrate a little more and really focus,” he said. “The outfielders right now, we’ll find out, but right now they feel like maybe when they get outside there’s a volleyball coming at them, just because of the difference in the white ceiling and the white ball compared to outside.”
And the late-night practices certainly are a thing of the past. NIU has been able to hold normal afternoon practices, and players can even come in and work out on their own.
“Usually over winter break we don’t get too many opportunities to come in and get ground balls,” said NIU shortstop Brian Sisler, a 2012 DeKalb High alumnus. “This winter break we got to do that, so that was really nice.”
From a pitcher’s standpoint, they’re able to get their running in on the track that surrounds the football field. Eli Anderson, who was NIU’s top starter last season and will start the season opener against the Gophers at 2 p.m. Friday, said in the past there were times when the group had to throw at the campus rec before heading over to Chick Evans to get running in.
When it came to working out arms, pitchers like Anderson weren’t able to get a full long toss in at the campus rec, whereas now there’s plenty of space in the Chessick.
“We have the ability to long toss. That’s pretty substantial for us. When we’re in the rec, I think the most we can throw is about 120 feet,” Anderson said. “In our throwing program, we work up to about 180. And then in the early winter we’ll even get to like 300 feet, which is the whole football field. Having a facility like this is really unbelievable for us, especially the (pitching) staff.”
Seniors such as Anderson will only have the benefit of the Chessick Center for one season, but Mathey said the facility already has helped in recruiting.
“It’s only been open since October, but every kid that we’ve walked through looks at [the facility], I call it the ‘wow factor,’ “ Mathey said. “And for me, development, not only [strength-wise] in the Yordon Center, to be able to develop, that’s the meat and potatoes of what you want to talk to the kids about.
“You can come here and develop, you can develop your game in here on a year-round basis. So that’s a huge thing.”