The Northern Intercollegiate Conference was the forerunner to the current Northern Sun. The NIC was a nonscholarship conference largely affiliated with the NAIA.
There was an outstanding baseball rivalry among St. Cloud State, Winona State and what was then, simply, Mankato State.
St. Cloud State won the NIC title in 1980. Twenty members of that team are using that as an excuse to hold a 35th reunion on Friday night. The gathering will be held in conjunction with the annual First Pitch Banquet to support Huskies baseball.
The story behind that St. Cloud team goes beyond a conference championship in a lower tier of college baseball. Three players reached the major leagues: outfielder Jim Eisenreich, pitcher Dana Kiecker and infielder Bob Hegman. Two players died in tragic circumstance: pitcher Geoff Hibbison during the season, and nine years later, Greg Berling, a star lefthanded pitcher and hitter.
Scott Mansch was the third baseman and a co-captain. He recalled the drama of a doubleheader split with the Gophers, who weren't treating their smaller-school rivals with much respect for much of the afternoon.
“The Gophers were were razzing us hard the whole game,’’ Mansch wrote in an e-mail. “Then, Jimmy [Eisenreich] blasted a three-run home run that beat them in Siebert Field, and the Gophers’ dugout shut up quick.’’
Another memorable victory came against Arkansas, the national runner-up from 1979 with slugger Kevin McReynolds still in the lineup.
The Huskies spent the night in Fayetteville, Ark., after the last game of the series. Hibbison and Berling were walking along a highway from a nearby restaurant/pub. A driver who had been drinking hit Hibbison and he was killed.
“Terrible; and witnessing the accident messed up Berls,’’ wrote Mansch.
The Huskies went to Gustavus for a best-of-three playoff to decide a trip to the NAIA national tournament.
Berling was supposed to pitch a game but didn’t show up. The Huskies lost two in a row, 6-4 and 4-3, and the season was over.
Nine years later, Berling was killed in a 5 a.m. helicopter crash in California. There was a report the pilot had been “partying’’ in a bar earlier that morning.
Plus Three from Patrick
Major leaguers from the 1980 St. Cloud State Huskies:
Jim Eisenreich: A swift outfielder with a smooth lefty swing, he overcame his untreated Tourette’s Syndrome with the Twins to play in 1,422 games, bat .290 and win a World Series with the ’97 Marlins.
Dana Kiecker: Made 25 starts (8-9, 3.97) for AL East-winning Red Sox in 1990; pitched in 50 games total in two seasons with Boston.
Bob Hegman: Infielder played a half-inning for Royals on Aug. 8, 1985, replacing George Brett in a defensive switch. Hegman, an outstanding, multi-sport athlete, was one of the rare big-league position players not to have a plate appearance.