July 7, 2010
DeKALB, Ill. - As the summer heat has been sizzling, so have four Northern Illinois Huskie baseball players.
Alex Beckmann, Joe Etcheverry, Alex Jones, and Tom Zelasko each were recently named to summer collegiate league baseball all-star rosters.
Following a 55-game grind of a season, in which NIU went 24-31, 12-15 in MAC play to narrowly miss the postseason for the second year in a row, the NIU coaching staff and players had plenty of time to figure out the areas of improvement. After the end of every campaign, NIU head baseball coach Ed Mathey and his staff ship their players off to various summer collegiate leagues to focus on the areas of their games that need to get better, doing so by playing in a competitive atmosphere, not by just practicing.
"From a coaching standpoint, it's an opportunity for the kids to get out and continue to work on their development," Mathey said. "They get to continue to have experiences on the field to make better plays and decisions on the field.
"It is important for the kids to be out there playing [during the summer]. Every kid has a different set of circumstances. Some want to be close to home for family reasons. Some have to stay around the area to take classes. The different leagues throughout the country have different requirements, too. Some have fees and host families. So we try to match the best fit for each kid. [Associate head] Coach [Steve] Joslyn does a fantastic job of getting the kids into the highest caliber league where they'll have a chance to play and develop."
"From the kids' perspective, some get to see a different part of the country," added Mathey. "They have a great opportunity to network within the game, develop their game, and get comfortable with what we want them to try to do."
Not only does playing during the offseason allow the Huskies to improve their weaknesses, it also gives them the opportunity to see what it's like to play at the next level. In the summer, the NIU players ditch the aluminum bats in favor of the wooden variety---the one's they swing when they dream about playing in Major League Baseball some day. In order to fulfill those dreams of playing professional baseball, players must be able to effectively swing a wooden bat, which has less power and a different feel than a metal bat. With 23 former Huskies signing professional contracts since 2003, Mathey's summer league system continues to be successful because the players learn how to hit with a wooden bat and are also exposed to MLB scouts.
"For these kids to swing wooden bats, it creates more expertise," Mathey said. "You have to be better to swing the wooden bat. The scouts want to know what [the kids] did over the summer because it's a step closer to what [the scouts] can project in pro baseball.
"It's for the pitchers, too. Pitchers make great pitches in college all the time but sometimes get hit because it's a metal bat."
The four all-stars are even more evidence of summer success, which Mathey hopes can translate into next season.
"The kids that have gone out and played over the summer months almost 100 percent across the board comeback better baseball players," Mathey said. "They also comeback more comfortable, more mature, and it challenges them. It's a good thing to learn and grow from and it helps us adjust our practice schedule for the fall."
"They also bring back different strategies on how to play the game, and the kids tell us about it. It gives us something else to think about and maybe the different ways will work for us. But almost always, they come back as better baseball players."
Beckmann and Zelasko made the grade as representatives of the local DeKalb County Liners, who are members of the 15-team Prospect League. In 24 games, Beckmann ranks 12th in the league with a .326 batting average and his 13 RBI rank 28th. The sophomore Batavia, Ill. native leads the Liners in batting average, on-base percentage (.443), walks (19), hits (31), doubles (5) and runs (17). Zelasko (1-3) leads the Liners with a 1.23 ERA, .176 opponent batting average, .208 opponent slugging percentage, and 10 appearances.
Jones also resides in the Prospect League and represented the Quincy Gems. In 24 games, the sophomore Piper, Kan. native ranks 15th in the league with 15 RBI, 19th with one home run, and 46th with a .279 batting average. He also leads the Gems in triples (5), walks (19), and stolen bases (14).
All three Prospect Leaguers were in action last night for the West team as the 2010 Prospect League All-Star Game at QU Stadium in Quincy ended in a 3-3 tie. Leading off and starting at short stop, Jones went 2-for-4 with a double and walk. Beckmann, who started at second base and batted eighth, produced a single in three at-bats, was hit by a pitch, and stole a bag. Zelasko finished the game for the West, protecting the tied scored with a perfect top of the ninth inning before both sides ran out of fresh arms.
On July 14 at 7 p.m. Pacific in Compton, Calif., and on Fox Sports West's live broadcast, Etcheverry will represent the San Louis Obispo Rattlers, who are members of the seven-team California Collegiate League. In 23 games, the junior Bakersfield, Calif. native ranks 20th in the league with a .274 batting average. He also leads the Rattlers in batting average, doubles (5), RBI (19), slugging percentage (.357), and on-base percentage (.351).
"We've had four guys make all-star teams and that's great recognition for Northern Illinois University," Mathey said. "It's always good to see the kids out there representing well, especially against kids from around the region, too."