'Excited' Illini earn NCAA at-large spot
CHAMPAIGN — Right fielder Davis Hendrickson was nibbling on his fingernails.
At times, shortstop Thomas Lindauer’s heart was beating at a ground-ball-in-the-hole clip.
The announcement of the NCAA tournament field late Monday morning was serious stuff for the Illinois baseball team, and halfway through the unveiling of the 64-school bracket, the Illini still had not seen their school’s name pop up on the TV screen at the Illinois Field clubhouse.
“It was kind of tense,” Lindauer said.
“I’m not going to lie. I was a little nervous,” Hendrickson said.
As it turned out, the Illini would not have to wait much longer. When ESPNU’s coverage resumed following a commercial break, the word Illinois appeared in the next four-team regional bracket to be revealed, prompting an eruption of cheers from coach Dan Hartleb’s players.
For the second time in three years, the Illini were in the national tournament.
“As soon as we got called, it was a big relief,” Hendrickson said. “I couldn’t be more excited.”
A 34-18 Illinois team is headed to Nashville, Tenn., where it will open regional play against Georgia Tech (34-25) at 1 p.m. Friday. The regional also includes the No. 2 national seed, host Vanderbilt (51-9), and East Tennessee State (36-22).
The Illini are seeded third in their regional behind Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech.
Illinois was the lone Big Ten team to receive an at-large bid, joining conference champion and automatic qualifier Indiana.
The Illini tied for fifth in the league during the regular season and were the second team to be eliminated from the six-team Big Ten tournament. In Illinois’ favor, however, was a 38-win season, a 10-5 record in its last 15 games, and, perhaps most significantly, a No. 39 ranking in the NCAA RPI.
“If you look at the history of the way they’ve selected teams, I felt good,” Hartleb said. “But was I comfortable? No, you’re never comfortable until you see your name because you don’t know exactly what goes on behind close doors.
“The one thing (the selection committee) always talked about is your RPI, and our kids did a great job this year of putting us in position with a high RPI. ... I think this team is very deserving.”
Center fielder Justin Parr is a member of a core of current Illini who experienced the program’s last NCAA tournament appearance in 2011. That team was among the last two survivors of the Fullerton (Calif.) Regional before being eliminated.
“It’s always good to represent the Big Ten and get a chance to keep playing games,” said Parr, a senior. “That’s what we love.”
Hartleb and his staff will spend the next several days trying to learn as much as they can about the rest of the Nashville Regional field. Illinois is 1-3 all time against Georgia Tech, but the teams have not met since 1930.
“As always, anybody that is in the tournament is going to be a quality opponent, so we’ll have to do things well,” Hartleb said. “But I like our chances.”
If the Illini were to make it out of their regional, it would create a major splash.
Vanderbilt was ranked No. 1 in all four of the major national polls last week as well as being atop the RPI.
“Right away we know we’re going into one of the tougher regionals,” said Parr, the Big Ten Player of the Year. “It’s going to be competitive. And it’s going to be awesome.”