DeKALB, Ill. – Northern Illinois University Athletics has initiated the public phase of a fundraising campaign to provide multiple enhancements to its baseball facility, while also honoring two of the greatest coaches in the history of Huskie Baseball, NIU Associate Vice-President and Director of Athletics Sean T. Frazier announced Wednesday.
The four-phase plan includes the installation of an artificial turf infield, bullpen and dugout renovations, replacing the outfield grass with turf, adding lights, and the replacement of the current bleachers with a new grandstand, press box, permanent restrooms and concessions area. In addition, the plan includes a new indoor hitting facility with covered bullpens.
“Over the past several years, it has become apparent that in order to continue the momentum of our baseball program, and taking into consideration our location and the college baseball calendar, we must move forward with a significant project to improve our baseball facility,” Frazier said. “We are fortunate to have two pioneering coaches in Walt Owens and Dave Mason, who have thrown their support behind this project and will allow us to honor them in the process. I know that not only student-athletes, but everyone from the university, the community and beyond who have benefitted from their wisdom and coaching will get behind this project and enable it to come to fruition.”
The ballpark will be re-named as Walt and Janice Owens Park in recognition and gratitude of all that Owens has done for the sport of baseball throughout his life. The Detroit native played for the Detroit Stars of the Negro League from 1953-55 and was inducted into the Negro Baseball League Hall of Fame in 2000. He spent seven seasons as NIU’s head baseball coach from 1976-82, winning 133 games, and served as an assistant coach for the Huskie men’s basketball team. “Coach O” has been a lifelong teacher, beginning with his time in the Detroit public schools system early in his career to his 34 years at NIU.
The indoor hitting facility will be named in honor of Dave Mason, who served as both an assistant coach and head coach for NIU and helped lead the Huskies to the 1972 NCAA Tournament. Mason had a .531 winning percentage in five seasons at the helm of the Huskie baseball program. He also served as a faculty member at NIU for many years. The field will remain Ralph McKinzie Field in continued recognition of Coach McKinzie’s role and successes in the early years of NIU Baseball.
The estimated $4 million baseball facility enhancement project will be funded entirely through private gifts. The baseball program’s most immediate need is the installation of the infield turf in order to minimize the impact of early season weather on practices and games. The completion of the next projects will be determined based on financial support and interest.
NIU Baseball had one of its most successful seasons in 2019, going 14-12 in Mid-American Conference play to reach the MAC Tournament for the third time in four years. The Huskies won two games at the MAC Tournament for the first time since 2008 to advance to the semifinals.
In addition to its impact on Huskie Baseball, the artificial turf field will create opportunities for high school and summer teams to play games in the facility and bring visitors to NIU’s campus and the DeKalb and Sycamore communities.
NIU head coach Mike Kunigonis said the greatest beneficiaries of the enhancement projects will be Huskie student-athletes.
“Baseball’s growing popularity over the years has led to an explosion of investments into college programs across the country,” Kunigonis said. “Programs we compete against every day in recruiting and on the diamond have made investments into their baseball facilities and programs. The upgrades in our plan will allow our players more opportunities to develop on the field during the harsh winter and spring months, and will allow the team to play more home games during the season.”