Northern Illinois returns to athletic competition at Wexford Plantation Intercollegiate

Northern Illinois HILTON HEAD ISLAND – Northern Illinois University’s men’s golf team shot a 325 on a blustery day at Wexford Plantation and finished in a three-way tie for last place at the Wexford Plantation Intercollegiate hosted by Francis Marion University, almost 60 shots back of the winning score for the event.

The Huskies didn’t set any scoring records but they did record a victory for their school and took a step toward transitioning from tragedy to normalcy.

The two-day tournament marked Northern Illinois’ return to athletic competition following a 10-day layoff due to the Feb. 14 campus shootings that prematurely ended the lives of five students. Monday’s opening round also coincided with the return to classes on the NIU campus. 

While the members of the golf team weren’t in DeKalb, home to NIU’s main campus located 65 miles west of downtown Chicago, with their classmates, the players did attend a number of services before arriving in Hilton Head Saturday, including last Thursday’s memorial which was attended by the entire athletic department.

Senior Zach Jecklin, who was Northern Illinois’ top individual finisher, said while the team was disappointed with its score, the tragedy has put things into perspective.

“Obviously we wanted to play better and we’re not happy, but beating ourselves up it is not something we’ll do,” said Jecklin, who tied for 42nd overall in the event. “That (the shooting) was always in the front of our minds.”

For members of the golf team, as well as every person comprising the general student population, the name of their school has become synonymous with a tragic event much like Virginia Tech did after an even more violent attack on its campus last April. Head golf coach John Cleary said that adjusting to new connotation surrounding the university’s name is certainly one of the obstacles his team now faces.

“It’s going to be a year of different things,” said Cleary. “It’s unfortunate that when people see Northern Illinois, that will be all that comes to mind. But for us, hopefully it’s brought the school together and allowed everyone to bond. As a team, we won’t use this as any kind of excuse and keep moving forward.”

“I take pride in it (the university) myself and I’ve never been as proud of NIU as I am now,” said Jecklin. “The school handled everything as well as anybody in the country could have.”

The trip was a chance to escape from the melancholic atmosphere looming over the NIU campus but was also a chance for the Huskie golf team to escape the bitter winter the Midwest has been experiencing.
 
“This is the first time I’ve seen green grass since November,” Jecklin joked about the conditions in Hilton Head in comparison to DeKalb. “All of us would rather have been here. We look forward to this trip every year and coming to a place that is this gorgeous. Leaving there was nice because there was absolutely nobody there.

“There are about 25,000 students at NIU and there has hardly been a car in the street,” added Jecklin. “This week, we got back to business as usual.”

“From a team standpoint, it was good to get down here,” said Cleary. The kids love this trip. There is a little bit of pull to be back with their friends, but we’ve only got 10 or 11 tournaments, so missing one or two is a big percentage of the season. For the most part, they’re glad to be here. Everyone has been great.”

While the Northern Illinois community continues to focus on returning to normalcy and coping with the tragic events, the golf team hopes to build on a strong fall and represent their school to the best of their abilities.

“We still have high expectations and we think we can compete in the conference,” said Cleary. “We’ve got some talent and I would like to see us regularly in contention. We have the skill level, we just need to build some confidence and of course, get outside to practice.”

“First, you want to play well and do good things for NIU and show your pride,” said Jecklin. For me personally, it’s my last semester and I don’t want to look back and think I wish I had done it all over. We have a long way to go but we’ll use this (tournament) as a learning experience. We expect to be better than in the past.”

NIU team members displayed red and black ribbons on their hats this week to honor their fallen classmates and to remember the tragic event. Other organizations have also planned to pay tribute to the school.

Coach Cleary said that the Virginia Tech men’s golf team will wear caps displaying the NIU logo for the rest of the spring, showing solidarity between the two universities that have dealt with similar pain.

The Chicago White Sox will wear Northern Illinois baseball caps in their opening spring training game today when they play the Colorado Rockies.
 
It will certainly be a difficult chore to completely forget the events of Feb. 14 and Jecklin expects that to continue for a very long time.

The Bloomington, Ill. native said he fielded questions from fellow competitors about things like his location at the time of the shooting and the atmosphere in DeKalb. He said they were always well-intended and prefaced with the assumption that he must have been asked about it a million times.

“There’s always a constant reminder,” he said. “It’s something we’ll have to live with from now on.”

Northern Illinois returns to competition on March 17, when the Huskies travel to Little Rock, Arkansas for the UALR First Tee Intercollegiate.

 

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