The end of January in Champaign may be brutally cold, but the Illini still began practice this week. The young 2017 Illini team began the season not on the field, but getting fired up with a speech by Hall of Famer, Goose Gossage at the annual fan banquet. Only three weeks remain before the season opener in Texas, so the Illini have to get game ready quickly, and kicked off 2017 at Irwin Indoor.
The Illini find themselves rebuilding with a young crew, and 2015’s magical Big Ten title is firmly in the rearview. Generating 13 MLB draftees, including first rounders Cody Sedlock and Tyler Jay, over the past two years leaves a big hole, but also brings up big expectations for personal performance. The focus on individual expectations can bring a team down, and Senior Anthony Drago offered up “an emphasis on personal stats” for being a factor in last year’s faltering during Big Ten play.
Head Coach of 12 years, Dan Hartleb isn’t worried about guys playing for the next level, but more about making sure the young core of Illini get sped up to the current level. Hartleb is confident “while we talk about those things, I don’t see it in these guys. The young guys are bought into team play and we have the upperclassmen who already know what we expect.”
When talking about what kind of baseball to expect from the Illini this year, he immediately mentioned defense being the biggest strength of the club. Asked about what the “team player” looked like at the plate, he says, “hitting line drives, backspinning balls into the gap. We’re a team that always is aggressive on the bases, so we want to take advantage of that.”
It may be early, and some are already writing off the Illini season. Even if the season is a wash in the standings, it would be a stretch to call it a waste. Getting the exciting young talent out on the field and with a year of seasoning under the veteran coaching staff is going to yield results sooner than later and no matter the goal, the Illini will be ready to execute it on February 17th.