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CHAMPAIGN – The neatest aspect of collegiate athletics, setting it apart from the pros, is the influx of fresh, excited faces each year, the ever-changing lineups.
Floridian Corey Liuget broke into the Illini's defensive line with a bang, and rookie hurdler Andrew Riley flashed great potential indoors. Richmond-Burton wrestler Jordan Blanton looks like a national contender at 184 pounds. Speed-balling Monica Perry gives the UI softballers a chance to move up. And aren't you dying to see how D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul fit in with Bruce Weber's cagers next season?
With Michigan State here for the Big Ten baseball opener at 6 p.m. today – orange apparel gets you in free, and stay-at-homes can watch with help from WDWS ace Brian Barnhart and former Cub Jerry Kindall on the Big Ten Network – UI coach Dan Hartleb has two, maybe more, prodigies who helped to bring about an unaccustomed Top 25 ranking.
Josh Parr, second-sacker from Chillicothe, carries a .391 batting average in the 13-5 start and was Big Ten Player of the Week after going 7 for 10 a month ago in Texas.
Outfielder Willie Argo, a 13-letter winner at Davenport Assumption, and Benet Academy pitcher Bryan Roberts didn't get off to Parr's start due to, as Argo shyly admits, "a violation of team rules." But Argo exploded on the scene in the UI's eighth game when he homered in his first three official at-bats at LSU. A short feature in Sports Illustrated indicated his three-homer debut has never been matched.
"It was surreal," Argo said. "When I watched the video, I saw me laughing as I ran around the bases."
The 6-3 Roberts, meanwhile, prepped for a start Sunday (1 p.m.) by fanning eight in seven scoreless innings against Central Connecticut State on Tuesday. Pitching suddenly became an Illini concern this week because expected starters Phil Haig and Ben Reeser, both 3-0, are sidelined by muscle strains and will be replaced by Teutopolis sophomore Lee Zerrusen tonight and Sycamore freshman Will Strack on Saturday (3 p.m.).
These UI youths won't be longtime fixtures like Derrek Lee or Albert Pujols because, well ... they'll be looking for greener pastures in three or four years. No sport, no coach, faces uncertainties like those in collegiate baseball. First, if sights are set too high, the signed superstar is liable to turn pro out of high school. That happened with Casey Crosby, the Kaneland fireballer who chose the Detroit Tigers over Illinois in 2007 ... for a cool $748,500. And any number of others – most recently Kyle Hudson, Scott Shaw and Canadian catchers Lars Davis and Chris Robinson – left with a year of eligibility remaining.
Consider that in 20 years Illinois has lost just five basketball stars early to the NBA: Derek Harper, Nick Anderson, Marcus Liberty, Frank Williams and Deron Williams. Football has lost a few since Jeff George became a No. 1 draft pick in 1990 – Brandon Lloyd, Jameel Cook, Rashard Mendenhall and Vontae Davis. By contrast, the UI baseball program has seen 21 players decline their final season since Hartleb joined coach Itch Jones here in 1991. Most prominent on that list is Scott Spiezio, with only a few others like Danville's Jason Anderson getting a sniff at the major league level.
"We roll the dice a lot in recruiting," said Hartleb, referring to the double-edged sword of losing the best players early and late.
"You simply have to go after quality players and students. We have a good sophomore class, and this freshman class, as a whole, is probably the best in my 19 years here.
"Parr showed a good work ethic and was never overwhelmed. He walked in here in the fall as though he was on a mission. He is a total package and can play shortstop next year if Brandon Wikoff (currently batting .397) turns pro."
And the 5-11 Parr is athletic, having dunked a basketball while carrying nearly a .500 batting average in his last two years of high school, and roughly .500 in 40 games last summer for the traveling Central Illinois Outlaws.
"I play for God," Parr said. "He is the center of my life. The toughest part for me each week is getting the required 10 hours at study hall. It's good, but all this travel makes it difficult.
"I look forward to (today) because it's Big Ten and we'll face Michigan State's best pitcher. I'm not concerned about my batting average. I just want quality at-bats. I want to get on base any way I can."
Parr is a press agent for Argo who, at 220 pounds, "runs the sprints faster than me. It was amazing at LSU, winning two games in front of those big crowds and Willie hitting three homers in a row."
Argo was captain of the all-state football team in Iowa, setting the 4A record with 83 career touchdowns. He was a first-team all-state running back in 2007, after being a second-team all-stater on defense in 2006 and 2005. As a wrestler, he twice finished third at 189 pounds, and finished sixth and seventh in the 2A 100 meters the last two years. The UI baseball program has attracted few athletes with his size, speed and power.
"Argo's father, Billy, was in Eric Snider's wedding, and I knew Willie's uncle," Hartleb said. "We had to wait for his football decision (and the end of wrestling season) before signing him a year ago. He is a pure outfielder and a good student (3.3 GPA, which is B-plus in the first semester)."
Argo slammed 13 homers as far back as his sophomore season, leading Assumption to the 2A state title that season as well as last summer.
"I kind of knew all along that I wanted to concentrate on baseball," he said. "I chose Illinois over Northern Iowa and Northwestern. I only hit one home run here in the fall games. I struggled for a while but I knew the power was there if I could find the timing.
"The Big Ten will be a dogfight. I'm excited to lay it on the line for something important."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.