Students bring ‘positive influence’ to local little leaguers

Jonah Newman

Courtesy photo

Rob Gunderson started playing little league baseball in kindergarten. Thirteen years later, when he got a message on the Sigma Phi Epsilon e-mail list in the spring of his freshman year asking for help coaching a local little league team, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I always knew that I wanted to do something for my child’s team, whether they play baseball, basketball or whatever, and I figured now was a good time to see what it’s like,” the Weinberg senior and former Daily business manager said. “And I absolutely fell in love with it.”

Gunderson coaches Orrington Realty, one of 10 teams in the Pony League, a league for 13- to 15-year-olds under the umbrella of the Evanston Baseball and Softball Association. Now in his fourth year, Gunderson is the team’s head coach, with assistants Paul Zolkind, a Weinberg senior, and Elliot Zharnitsky, a Weinberg junior. Next year, Zharnitsky will take over as head coach and hopefully bring another fraternity member to the coaching team, Gunderson said.

“I hope that 10 years down the road, it will still be like that,” he said.

Evanston Baseball and Softball Association is the main baseball and softball league in Evanston, with five baseball and four softball leagues, in addition to a number of traveling leagues, co-President Michael Weber said. Overall, more than 1,600 kids from Evanston and the surrounding area play with the association each spring and summer, he said.

Northwestern students have been coaching in the Pony League for at least four years, said Henry Kleschen, the league’s commissioner. A number of students, including NU wide receiver Eric Peterman, have served as umpires.

Parents lauded the NU students’ enthusiasm and ability to connect with students.

“They’re a lot cooler than us,” said parent Brian Brady. “(The kids) probably listen and respect them more than they respect us.”

Brady, whose son Russell plays on Orrington Realty, said he has a lot of respect for the students who take time out of their busy schedules to coach baseball.

“It’s such a community-oriented thing to do,” he said. “It’s really impressive.”

Kleschen said NU students who coach might help bridge the town-gown divide.

“These coaches are like emissaries for Northwestern,” he said.

Michael Schlossberg, a Weinberg senior who started coaching with two of his roommates last year, said he is cognizant of being a representative of NU. But mostly, he just wants to be a role model for his players.

“We try to be a positive influence for them,” he said. “We’re always aware that they’re looking at us, and we try to lead by example.”

With two games every week in addition to regular practices, it can sometimes be hard to juggle coaching and class work.

“It’s not always easy, but the kids come first,” Schlossberg said.

If their teams do well this year, Schlossberg’s priorities may be put to the test, as playoffs are likely to fall in the middle of Senior Week. For Gunderson, the choice is easy.

“I think little league will take priority,” he said.

Gunderson said the little things kept him coming back year after year, like outfielders catching a ball they often miss or a smaller player getting a strong hit.

Or games such as the one Wednesday night, when Orrington Realty stayed neck and neck with Candlelite, one of the best teams in the league. At the bottom of the seventh and final inning, with the score tied and the bases loaded, Orrington’s batter was walked, bringing in the winning run and securing an 8-7 win.

In the team huddle at the end of the game, the players were all smiles.

“This was the best game I’ve seen in my four years of coaching,” Gunderson told them.

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