In the immediate aftermath of their 4-2 loss to Vanderbilt in what turned out to be the deciding game two of the Champaign Super Regional, Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb and his players likely would have told you that, while they were proud of the team, they fell short of the team’s ultimate goal of getting to Omaha.
And in the short term, in their shoes, it would be tough not to be disappointed. After winning the Big Ten regular season, securing a national seed, and then sweeping their way through a home regional with relative ease, it’s a tough pill to swallow to lose back-to-back games to the Commodores.
Backing away and looking at the big picture, though, this season has been nothing but positive for Illinois, as the team set a number of new benchmarks for the program, including a program record for wins in a season, the team’s first turn as a regional host and national seed, and the program’s first appearance in a super regional.
Still, with such an upperclassman-heavy team that’s likely to suffer some significant attrition via graduation and the draft, one wonders what’s next for the Illini. Will they take a few steps back and go back to the program they were before, playing consistently good baseball year-to-year with a peak every two or three seasons that includes a regional appearance?
Will the success of this season propel them into the next level as an annual regional shoo-in with a higher ceiling, capable of making super regionals and challenging to get to Omaha, as they did this year? Or are they going to shoot even higher and become an annual challenger for the Big Ten title with Omaha as a legitimate goal, similar to what Indiana has done over the last several years?
Certainly there is nothing wrong with the first of those options, but it’s a safe bet that Hartleb and company are hoping for one of the latter two.
In any event, the foundation for what’s next has been laid here in 2015.
Just think about all of the things Hartleb and staff can use to sell the program that weren’t available even a year ago.
For starters, he can now say definitively that the Illini compete in an elite baseball conference. Perhaps 2015 was the peak for the Big Ten as a baseball conference, but even if they’re not quite as solid from top to bottom moving forward, it doesn’t appear that the league is going anywhere. There are simply too many programs on solid or better footing right now.
The Illinois program is now at the top of that list, of course. They’re well-established as a regional-caliber program more often than not, and now, they have credibility as a program with some upward mobility after their super regionals appearance.
Personal success of the players can be a big variable in recruiting and building a program as well, and thanks to Tyler Jay (1st round, sixth overall to Minnesota), Kevin Duchene (5th round to Oakland), and David Kerian (9th round to Washington), they have a litany of recent high-round MLB draft successes to point out. It’s quite a deal for a young player to be all but guaranteed a real crack at several seasons of postseason baseball and a chance to be a high draft pick, and Illinois can offer that opportunity.
Finally, there is Illinois Field. It’s always been a perfectly nice facility. The field was always well-kept and the program enjoyed pretty decent turnouts from the local community. But with upgrades in 2015, including a brand-new video scoreboard and chair backs to the existing bleachers, it has gone to another level. These improvements were huge for the Illini, given that the entire Big Ten has been heavily-involved in a stadium arms race of late.
Taken together, all of that means that Illinois is playing from a position of power like never before. And, a few years down the road, if the program continues to hum along, they will have the 2015 Illini to thank.