CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -– The University of Illinois baseball head coach Dan Hartleb told College Baseball Central in an interview Monday that he thinks his program should be at Omaha this year.
Hartleb’s tone indicated a confident yet realistic expectation for this year’s coming campaign. “I expect to play at a championship level every year,” Hartleb stated. “This program should be in Omaha.”
UI features a formidable pitching staff that spotlights preseason Louisville Slugger second-team All-American junior LHP Tyler Jay (Lemont, Ill. /Lemont). Last year, Jay rang up a 4-1 record, and drove the bullpen, sporting a 1.94 ERA while leading in bullpen strikeouts (47) over a team-high 23 appearances (41.2 IP). Correspondingly, Jay was a seamless 10-for-10 in save opportunities, a feat that ranked fourth in the Big Ten and second in school history for saves in a season.
“If we stay healthy we can be one of the best pitching staffs in the nation,” Hartleb remarked. “But you can’t go around talking about it, you have to perform. We have good depth on the mound but we are in the process of evaluating where guys fit in our bullpen.”
Next to Jay is junior LHP Kevin Duchene (Joliet, Ill. /Joliet Catholic Academy), who flag poled a Big Ten-best 1.80 ERA last year while ringing up 35 strikeouts over 55 innings pitched in nine starts, together with a team-high two complete games. Throw in red-shirted senior RHP Drasen Johnson (Chillicothe, Ill. /Illinois Valley Central), senior RHP John Kravetz (Lansing, Ill. /Mount Carmel), and fifth year senior LHP Rob McDonnell (Barrington, Ill. /Barrington) and suddenly you see why Hartleb is so high on his hurling. He has – right off the top – three lefties and two righties that are experienced to say the least.
“I have been impressed in the first three days of practice,” the Southern Illinois grad Hartleb points out. “I felt like our position players showed quality hitting, and I like the confidence they are displaying. I feel confident in every single guy we put out there, and the way they play and practice.”
The position players for the Fighting Illini are a unique squad. They don’t really have a standout in terms of a leader, nevertheless, the whole team benefits from multiple upperclassmen that are accountable to their underclassman.
“There is a number of upper-classman that guys look up to here,” Hartleb said. “A great leader to me is someone who can lead whether he is hitting .200 or .400; we have more than one guy that can be said about. This takes the pressure off of one guy.”
Junior IF/OF Ryan Nagle (Streator, Ill. /Streator), senior Third-team All-Big Ten outfielder Casey Fletcher (Oakwood, Ill. /Kankakee Community College), 2014 All-Big Ten Freshman IF/RHP Ryne Roper (Harrisburg, Ill. /Harrisburg), and junior Second-team All-Big Ten catcher Jason Goldstein (Highland Park, Ill. /Highland Park) will be forces for UI at the plate, and defensively.
“We worked hard on team defense in practice these three days,” Hartleb added. “During bunt defensive drills we were flawless for the first twenty minutes. Guys came back in shape, and that is why we are looking good. This team plays and practices at a high level.”
Illinois throws its first pitch of the 2015 NCAA college baseball season 02/13/15 vs. New Mexico State in Beaumont, Texas 2:00 PM CT.