Promising returnees could spark Illini turnaround

Promising returnees could spark Illini turnaround

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois baseball has taken its lumps in the two years following its 50-win season and Super Regional appearance in 2015.

The Illini have played .500 ball since that record-setting year, including a 23-28 mark last season as freshmen and sophomores filled nearly every key role from the lineup to rotation and bullpen.

That means Illinois will return its roster nearly intact from a year ago with just two regulars to replace in first baseman Pat McInerney and third baseman Trent Hammond. The Illini open the 2018 season in less than a month with a Feb. 16 game against Lamar in Beaumont, Texas.

"It's nice to have a lot of familiar faces back, and you say that when you feel like you have good players," Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. "I believe in them. We're capable of being very good. If they believe in themselves, we'll be a very good team this year.

"We don't have anyone that needs to be a superstar on the team. We have a great group of players. If they play as a team, we can be very, very successful."

Illinois has just two seniors on its roster heading into next month's opener. That's pushed the Illini's junior class into more prominent leadership roles. It's a role junior outfielder Jack Yalowitz wants.

"Being a leader of the team shows that everyone else respects you and they admire your work," said Yalowitz, who finished in the top 10 in the Big Ten in seven major offensive categories and earned All-Big Ten First Team honors.

"I looked up to someone like Pat McInerney a lot," Yalowitz continued. "He was an unbelievable clubhouse leader, and he set a really good example for guys like me — juniors now — who can take the reins and keep this program moving forward."

Experienced returning sophomores and juniors had Hartleb take a different path in filling out his 2018 class. Illinois has just four true freshmen on its roster, but Hartleb also added three junior college transfers.

"We have not gone the junior college route in the past that often, but we felt like we had the right fits to fit with a very good group of young players," Hartleb said. "I think they're guys who will really help. We feel like we can win with this group."