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Right now I'm just thankful we get to have a sport: NIU coaches react to MAC tourney news

NIU head coach Lisa Carlsen talks to her players in DeKalb Jan. 11.
NIU head coach Lisa Carlsen talks to her players in DeKalb Jan. 11.

Sure there was some disappointment, NIU baseball coach Mike Kunigonis said, when he found out the MAC was canceling the league's baseball postseason tournament for at least the next four years.

But there's nothing like losing a whole season to put that in perspective.

"We're still in it, right? We're still in an at-home order," Kunigonis said. "There's still a lot of stuff that could transpire over the next month, over the next two months. Just think about where we were 90 days ago. ... I'm less about that stuff right now to be completely honest with you."

The conference announced on Tuesday that it was eliminating postseason tournaments in eight sports and scaling back nine others. Both men's and women's basketball will have their tournaments reduced to eight teams, with the addition of two conference games.

For sports losing their tournaments like baseball, softball and soccer, automatic NCAA berths will go to the regular-season winners.

Kunigonis said his primary concerns at the moment are not thinking about any potential ramifications the MAC not having a postseason tourney will have on recruiting. He said he's focused on getting his team back on campus and a sense of normalcy as soon as it's allowed.

"I look at this from a little bit different perspective," Kunigonis said. "Our season was canceled. So the simple fact we'll be able to play baseball in the future and be able to compete and play in an NCAA Regional Tournament, and compete to win the regular-season championship, I have a little more perspective on that now.

"I'm sitting at home right now and this should be our last weekend of the year. Our seniors should be getting recognized. And we should be on a bus Monday to look to go win a MAC title. In my opinion, right now I'm just thankful we get to have a sport."

NIU softball coach Christina Sutcliffe said she doesn't believe the move will have any impact on recruiting. She said there's still a 56-game schedule, still a chance to play for an NCAA and MAC title, and early-season trips south.

"I think students come here for the atmosphere," Sutcliffe said. "We have a great family atmosphere between our program and the athletic department and the university. They're still going to get a chance to get into the NCAA Tournament. I don't think it's going to be that big of a difference to be honest with you. Recruits just want a chance to compete in an NCAA tournament and compete at a high level and we're still going to be able to provide that."

Kunigonis will also benefit from an NCAA rule that will allow seniors that play a spring sport an extra year of eligibility.

Kunigonis said nine of his 10 seniors will be back next year. Sutcliffe said both her seniors are leaving.

While basketball tournaments will still be played, it will be reduced to an eight-team field. Instead of teams hosting on-campus games, every qualifying team will reach the quarterfinals and a trip to Cleveland.

NIU women's coach Lisa Carlsen said the equity of the MAC plans make it easier to swallow.

"Everybody is looking for ways to make it work," Carlsen said. "We're all trying to cut costs. For us this makes the most sense from a basketball standpoint."

Sutcliffe echoed the sentiments of her fellow NIU head coaches, in that the decision is disappointing but necessary.

"I think obviously the spirit and the camaraderie of the MAC tournament is a great thing for our student-athletes," Sutcliffe said. "But the rivalries are still going to exist in the regular season. Our season got extended so we have a 30-game conference schedule. So I think it's still going to be super-competitive and our athletes will still get a chance to win a championship. So all things considered I think we're doing all right."

Sutcliffe and men's soccer coach Ryan Swan said there were internal discussions that helped prepare the teams for the decision.

For Swan, he said he's optimistic his team will play this fall, even without a MAC tournament and with a ton of uncertainty.

"It seems to chance on an almost daily basis," Swan said. "We had a very positive conversation with the MAC, just the soccer coaches and I think there's a lot of good ideas out there. People really seem committed to make it happen. Obviously we've got to wait to see what the governors say, but I'm confident we'll get something in this fall."

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