DeKALB, Ill. - After six weeks of non-conference play in six different states, the Northern Illinois baseball team opens its Mid-American Conference schedule this weekend as it takes on Kent State, a 2012 College World Series participant.
This is a series the Huskies have circled on their calendars since the team began meeting for voluntary workouts in September, not only for the challenge of the series but for conference bragging rights.
In 2011, the Huskies rallied back from an 0-11 start to finish the regular season 29-25 and qualify for the MAC Tournament, earning the programs first postseason win since 2008. With a solid core of those players returning in 2012, most of which were seniors, NIU was unable to repeat the feat last season as it finished the year 15-40 overall.
Enter 2013 and Northern Illinois has 11 players with at least three years in the program, including one five-year member of the squad. However, the program was ushering in 15 new members of its squad, including 12 freshmen.
With a healthy mixture of young and old on the team, the coaching staff got together a formulated a way to catalyze the team's chemistry. With a little help from the strength and conditioning staff, The Road to Avon Challenge was born. The MAC Baseball Tournament is hosted in Avon, Ohio at All Pro Freight Stadium.
Broken up into two days with four teams competing and comprised of seven events, the challenge was a fitness test competition for team bragging rights. If an athlete passed the challenge, all events based on time of completion, they were given a camouflage t-shirt to signify the accomplishment. The event times were recorded and counted towards the teams score.
"All these guys can watch each other, cheer each other on because they're going through this challenge. They're all trying to accomplish it and that's a good thing," said Head Coach Ed Mathey. "Obviously, as a coach, you'd like to see everyone make it but some fall short and they're holding each other accountable to it and they're doing it front of their teammates. That's part of it, we do have a young team and most of these young guys have gotta learn, gotta work, gotta keep working. It's a process."
Though the conference season begins today in Chicago at Les Miller Field, and NIU has already played five weeks of baseball, the Road to Avon began months ago in autumn's crisp air at Huskie Stadium. Battle tested from the road and fit from conditioning, the Huskies will hope to move a couple steps closer towards The Road to Avon.