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Baseball: Notre Dame to take on Northern Illinois at U.S. Cellular Field for charity

Fran Tolan | Wednesday, April 16, 2008

On Feb. 14, the latest in a series of shootings on college campuses occurred at Northern Illinois. A gunman opened fire in a full classroom and six of the 22 students shot in the incident died.

Notre Dame will face off against Northern Illinois tonight at U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, in a benefit for the NIU February 14 Scholarship Fund. The foundation will distribute scholarships to deserving students in the name of the victims of the shooting.

So what, one might ask, can a baseball game played two months after such a tragedy do to help heal the still-raw wounds of those involved?

A lot, according to Northern Illinois coach Ed Mathey.

“The hook about baseball is it starts during springtime and spring is a time for renewal. And that’s what this is about: renewal,” Mathey said. “We haven’t had a lot of good weather this year but we’re hoping tomorrow night Mother Nature cooperates and we’re able to raise a bunch of money for the scholarship fund.”

And while Mathey and his team will be part of the healing process tonight, many of them have not fully recovered themselves.

“It’s just unbelievable, horrific when you think that something like that can happen and then it happens to you,” Mathey said. “A lot of our freshmen were impacted a little more than some of the older guys. Many of them went home because that’s where their comfort zone was.”

The coach said most of the upperclassmen on the team chose to continue the season, which was delayed by four games because of the tragedy.

“Some of the older guys have got more connections here and they stuck around,” Mathey said. “None of the team was directly involved in the incident as far as being in the classroom or being in any of the classrooms near there, and I guess that’s the best we as a team could have hoped for.”

Still, Mathey said, it was at least ten days after the incident before any of his players began to comprehend what had happened. On February 24, the school held a memorial service for the fallen victims in the Northern Illinois Convocation Center.

“On the Sunday after, there was a vigil and [15,000] people came. It was so touching,” Mathey said. “It marked the time when we could finally start healing as a team and as a university.”

For Notre Dame’s part, Irish coach Dave Schrage spent three seasons as the head coach at Northern Illinois. Schrage said he was stunned by the tragedy and asked longtime friend Mathey if there was any type of aid Notre Dame could give his former school.

“I was there as a coach for three years and the shootings occurred in the building that was right across the street from my office,” Schrage said. “I just called [Mathey] to make sure everything was okay. I just asked, ‘Hey, is there anything we can do to raise money for this group’. And we came to an agreement to play a game.”

And while it is just a game, both coaches agree that tonight will be extremely emotional for those close to the victims.

“It’s going to be a tough night for the families,” Schrage said. “I’m not sure how many are coming or what but hopefully we can make some money for them.”

Mathey said Notre Dame and the White Sox were instrumental in planning tonight’s contest.

“Notre Dame has been simply outstanding throughout this whole thing,” Mathey said. “Coach Schrage and [Irish assistant coach Scott] Lawler and the [Notre Dame] administration were so great in helping us out.”

The teams hope to draw a big crowd from the Chicago area for the matchup.

“From what I understand, Notre Dame has a pretty big following from the Chicagoland area,” Mathey said. “I’ll be interested to see how much red and how much green there is in the crowd.”

Schrage, who grew up near Chicago, echoed Mathey’s sentiments.

“We got a great alumni group [around Chicago]. Hopefully we can get some of our fan base and we could do something like this every year,” Schrage said.

After defeating Toledo 6-1 Tuesday, Notre Dame takes a nine-game winning streak and a 22-9-1 record into the contest. Meanwhile, Northern Illinois moved to 13-16 with a win over Akron Sunday.

“We want to go out and just hopefully give Notre Dame a good ballgame,” Mathey said.

But Schrage said the game will not be as lopsided as the teams’ records might indicate.

“That will be a World Series-type [atmosphere] for both teams playing in a pro ballpark,” Schrage said. “The emotions will be high. We come in on a streak but I’m sure [the Huskies] will play really well.”

And might Northern Illinois have some type of intervention beyond the baseball element of the game on its side?

“Well, that doesn’t usually happen against Notre Dame,” Mathey laughed. “But we’ll see.”