Gophers walk-on succeeds

Neal Kunik didn’t make the team as a walk-on until his third time around.

Betsy Helfand

For junior pitcher Neal Kunik, the third time was the charm.

After trying to walk on to the Gophers baseball team as a freshman and again as a sophomore, Kunik finally made the team his junior year.

Though many would have given up after the first or second rejection, a stubborn streak persuaded Kunik to continue to pursue his dream.

“[I’m] pretty hard-set in my ways, so when I set out to achieve this goal specifically, I was telling myself I wasn’t going to stop before I got it done,” Kunik said.

Minnesota holds walk-on tryouts every fall — head coach John Anderson said that was the way he got his start in the program.

“There are kids that want to come to this institution academically … [and] have some baseball ability,” Anderson said, “so we [hold] the walk-on tryout just to give the kids the opportunity.”

Gophers baseball tryouts can have anywhere from a dozen players to as many as 40.

Anderson said coaches tell prospective players that they don’t keep a lot of guys from tryouts, but they’re welcome to keep trying out. Most don’t.

“The very few guys that we have kept from the open tryouts are guys that have kept showing up each fall,” pitching coach Todd Oakes said. “They keep showing up, and they keep showing you that ‘Hey, maybe this guy’s got something to offer.’”

Oakes could only recall “two or three” pitchers that Minnesota has kept from open tryouts in his 16 years with the team.

Kunik was one of them.

“It had always been my dream to play baseball here, so I figured I’d give it a shot at walking on and hope for the best,” he said.

After a successful high school career at Eagan High School, Kunik could have continued playing baseball at a Division II or III school or even at a smaller Division I school.

Kunik ultimately chose to attend Minnesota for academics. He said his college decision came down to Minnesota or North Dakota State, but Minnesota had a better engineering school.

Oakes said the Gophers knew of Kunik in high school.

“I think he was on our list, just probably not high enough on our list to actually recruit out of high school,” Oakes said.

Kunik continued to play amateur ball in the summer, which helped him prepare for tryouts.

“Every year, I’d get myself and my body ready for tryouts in the fall with the hope that I would make it,” Kunik said. “[It] was really tough to handle, especially the first year when you’re hoping for the best and being really optimistic.”

But for the past two years, Minnesota hasn’t had open roster spots.

“His sophomore year, he probably deserved to make it, and I think our coaches would say that,” Gophers player and childhood teammate Mark Tatera said. “This year, we finally had the open roster [spot] so he was finally able to join the team.”

Tatera said Kunik kept a positive attitude throughout.

He bounced around between different engineering fields once he got to campus before eventually switching over to psychology.

“I was really good at math and science, so I figured [engineering] was the route to go,” Kunik said. “It turns out once I got to those upper-level math classes, they weren’t as fun as I thought they were in high school.”

Anderson said academics were a factor in giving Kunik a spot on the roster.

“[We] told him he had to get his academics in line because we weren’t going to put him on until he did,” Anderson said. “We tried to use that to motivate him a little. He had to do the work, and he did the work.”

Near the beginning of October, Kunik officially gained a roster spot.

He said he underestimated how much time collegiate baseball would take. Still, that’s not a bad thing for him.

“I always have too much free time on my hands, so I’m very happy to at least be dedicating it toward something I really enjoy,” Kunik said.

So far, he’s pitched in four games, earned one win and posted a 2.57 earned run average.

“You’ll never hear him complain [if] he’s not pitching enough or wants more opportunities,” Anderson said. “He understands … what his role is, and he’s accepted that role in a very positive way.”